Wolfe v. Clarke, No. 11-6

Decided: August 16, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling which vacated Wolfe’s capital murder and other convictions. The ruling also ordered Virginia to either release Wolfe or retry him within 120 days.

Wolfe was found guilty of capital murder, marijuana related charges, and using a firearm in the commission of a felony in 2002. Wolfe was charged with murder because there was evidence that Wolfe had hired Barber to commit the murder.  In exchange for Barber’s testimony against Wolfe, the Commonwealth dismissed its capital murder charge against him. In December of 2005, Barber renounced his original testimony and claimed that Wolfe did not hire him for the murder. Wolfe then appealed his sentence claiming that the prosecution had suppressed evidence. In August of 2007, a magistrate judge rejected Wolfe’s request for an evidentiary hearing. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case with instructions for the court to determine whether or not Wolfe should have an evidentiary hearing. The court ultimately granted Wolfe’s request. In June of 2011, the court held that Wolfe was entitled to habeas corpus relief because the Commonwealth violated Wolfe’s Brady rights.

The court of appeals found that it only needed to look at the first piece of evidence denied to Wolfe, the evidence impeaching Barber, to agree with the district court’s opinion. This piece of evidence was a police report containing evidence that a police officer told Barber he could escape the death penalty by implicating Wolfe in the murder. The Commonwealth argued that the district court erred by excusing procedural defaults, by granting the evidentiary hearing, and by giving Wolfe the opportunity to amend his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition. The court rendered the Commonwealth’s first argument moot. As for the evidentiary hearing, the court of appeals concluded that the district court properly found that Wolfe had met “at least three of the six [Townsend] factors” necessary for granting an evidentiary hearing. The district court also demonstrated good cause for authorizing discovery. Wolfe’s amendment of his petition was not necessary because the new issues fell within already existing issues in his petition, so the Commonwealth’s third argument failed.

The court concluded that Wolfe was entitled to succeed on his Brady claim because he was able to successfully show the three essential factors. First Wolfe was able to show that the missing evidence was in some way favorable to him. He next proved that the State suppressed this evidence, and finally that prejudice resulted.

Judge Duncan dissented in part stating that the court should not have granted habeas relief on the drug conspiracy conviction.

Full Opinion

-Samantha James

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