- Virginia officials sought court intervention to prevent release
- Conviction questioned in murder-for-hire over alleged prosecutorial misconduct
- Judge ordered new trial, which was never brought by state
- Prosecution denied wrongdoing
A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked the release of a death-row inmate, whose murder-for-hire conviction was questioned due to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
The Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit issued a brief order just minutes before Justin Wolfe could have been temporarily freed.
Virginia officials had also asked the Supreme Court to intervene but Chief Justice John Roberts had not taken action before the appeals decision put the matter on hold.
The appeals court will take up the issue in oral arguments later this month.
Wolfe, 30, was sentenced to die a decade ago after a jury found that he ordered the killing of the marijuana supplier.
But U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson later concluded that prosecutors in Prince William County outside Washington manipulated and excluded evidence that may have proved helpful to the defendant.
The state's key witness at trial later recanted his testimony that Wolfe was the murder mastermind and admitted lying on the stand.
Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, who led the prosecution, has denied wrongdoing.
Jackson ordered a retrial in 2011, but that never occurred, prompting his latest order on December 26 to release Wolfe by Thursday.
"What is clear is that through the actions of the Original Prosecuting Team, petitioner [Wolfe] has been denied the very remedy that would have repaired the numerous constitutional violations this court found," Jackson said in his latest decision, adding such violations were "essentially permanent."
"As such, the court finds extraordinary circumstances exist that warrant barring re-prosecution of the petitioner. It is clear that any retrial under the present circumstances would result in incurable violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the rights afforded to all defendants."
Wolfe's lawyers also allege that county prosecutors tried to pressure the triggerman, Owen Barber, to change his story and re-implicate Wolfe, saying they were now prepared to put Barber himself on death row for the crime.
The state strongly denies pressuring anyone.
Original court testimony showed the killing was linked to a power struggle within a suburban marijuana ring, which reportedly was headed by the murder victim.
The case is Clarke v. Wolfe (12A667).