NEW VOICES: Former Judges and Law Enforcement Officials Criticize Death Row Inmate's Conviction

Thirty-four high-profile former judges and law enforcement officials recently filed an amicus brief arguing against Virginia’s efforts to reinstate the conviction of Justin Wolfe (pictured). Wolfe’s attorneys maintain he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in a 2002 murder-for-hire case because of false testimony from the actual shooter, Owen Barber. In 2005, Barber admitted to lying under oath, saying, “The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying.” In July 2011, a federal District Court overturned Wolfe’s conviction, citing the state’s use of Barber’s false testimony. Among those urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to affirm the District Court ruling are J. Joseph Curran Jr., who served as attorney general of Maryland; Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida; and former attorneys general from Tennessee and New Jersey.

The officials believe the prosecution suppressed key evidence and failed to disclose that police had made a deal with Barber that, if he testified against Wolfe, he would be spared the death penalty. The amicus brief states, “Under that agreement, Barber could avoid the death penalty by implicating a ‘higher up.’ Before Barber ever mentioned Wolfe’s name, police suggested to Barber that Wolfe was the ‘higher up.’“ The brief concluded, “Given the obvious materiality of the withheld evidence in this case, there can be little question that its suppression has ‘undermine[d] confidence in the verdict,’ posing an unacceptable risk that an innocent man may have been sentenced to death.” Owen Barber later changed his story again, saying he had told the truth about Wolfe at trial.

(D. Sherfinksi, “Out-of-state officials oppose restoration of death penalty - Validity of testimony questioned after verdict,” Washington Times, March 26, 2012; Full text of Amici Curiae Brief of Former Judges, Prosecutors, and Senior Law Enforcement Officials Supporting Appellee Wolfe and Seeking Affirmance.) See Innocence. Read more New Voices on the death penalty.