Wolfe v. Clarke, No. 12-7

Decided: May 22, 2013

Following a complex and extended procedural history, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the Commonwealth of Virginia failed to satisfy the terms of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia’s conditional writ, an operative retry-or-release directive.  The Court of Appeals next held that the district court abused its discretion in barring the reprosecution of the petitioner, Justin Wolfe.  As such, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s Order Enforcing Judgment and remanded with instructions that the lower court enter a substitute order.

In 2002, a jury in Prince William County, Virginia, found Wolfe guilty of the capital murder of Danny Petrole, of using a firearm in the commission of a felony, and of conspiring to distribute marijuana. According to the Prosecution, Wolfe allegedly hired his friend and fellow drug dealer, Owen Barber, to murder Petrole.  Barber, the only witness to testify concerning the “for hire” element, entered into a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.  Wolfe was eventually sentenced to death for his murder conviction and received a combined sentence of 33 years for his drug and firearm convictions. Wolfe appealed, and while Wolfe’s petition was pending, Barber executed an affidavit repudiating his trial testimony and exculpating Wolfe from the murder-for-hire scheme. Barber subsequently sought to recant the statements in his exculpatory affidavit, insisting he testified truthfully at trial and had falsified the prior affidavit.  Consequently, the district court dismissed Wolfe’s petition. Wolfe timely appealed that dismissal, and the court vacated in part and remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the district court determined Wolfe was entitled to an evidentiary hearing.  At this hearing, Barber testified, exculpated Wolfe, and his testimony was credited by the court.  The court ruled that the prosecutors in Wolfe’s trial had contravened his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by failing to disclose favorable and material evidence and alling Barber to testify, despite having information indicating his testimony was false.  Therefore, the court granted habeas corpus relief to Wolfe.  His “conviction and sentence” were vacated.  Wolfe thereafter moved to clarify whether the relief granted on his capital murder conviction also encompassed his firearm and drug convictions. The court issued a Relief Order, explaining that Wolfe was entitled to a new trial on all of the original charges, and it accorded the Commonwealth the option of either providing Wolfe with a new trial, or releasing him unconditionally from custody within 120 days.  The Commonwealth appealed, and in Wolfe II the court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

On the same day the court’s Wolfe II mandate issued, Wolfe was transferred from the Sussex State Prison to the Prince William County Adult Detention Center, for a status hearing that set the date for his bond hearing.  The following day, the Commonwealth’s attorney and several investigating officers interviewed Barber.  In the interview, recorded without Barber’s knowledge, the agents suggested that because his testimony in the federal habeas proceedings was inconsistent with his trial testimony, he had breached his plea agreement and could face reinstatement of his original capital murder charge.  In the meantime, a Prince William County grand jury returned new indictments against Wolfe, charging him with six additional offenses in addition to the original charges.  Based primarily on the Barber interview, Wolfe filed a motion to dismiss in the circuit court, contending that the prosecutors had engaged in “gross prosecutorial misconduct” because they threatened Barber with the death penalty.  The district court subsequently entered its Order Enforcing Judgment, concluding that the Commonwealth had not satisfied either compliance option specified in the Relief Order.  Specifically, Wolfe had not been released unconditionally and he had not been retried within 120 days of the Relief Order.  Concerning the Barber interview, the lower court determined that “extraordinary circumstances” had been shown warranting a bar to Wolfe’s retrial. The court found that the Barber interview “incurably frustrated the entire purpose” of the federal habeas corpus proceedings, and “permanently crystalized” the constitutional violations infecting Wolfe’s trial, causing Barber to be legally unavailable to testify in a retrial. Consequently, the district court ordered Wolfe’s release within ten days and barred the Commonwealth from reprosecution.  The Commonwealth appealed.

Thus, the Fourth Circuit faced two grave issues: whether the Commonwealth complied with the Relief Order, and if so, whether the district court abused its discretion in barring Wolfe’s retrial.  The Court of Appeals first held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that the Commonwealth neglected to satisfy either compliance option.  The Commonwealth had a choice: it could either provide Wolfe with a new trial or unconditionally release him from custody.  The Commonwealth maintained that since Wolfe’s 2012 bond hearing, his status was that of a pretrial defendant who had been denied bond.  The Fourth Circuit, however, disagreed, holding that “releasing Petitioner from the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections to Prince William County for the purposes of retrial did not constitute releasing Petitioner ‘unconditionally from custody.’”  The Commonwealth’s other option for compliance with the Relief Order was to provide Wolfe with a new trial “within 120 days of the date of the Order.”  The Commonwealth maintained that as long as proceedings had been commenced it had satisfied its obligation. In the alternative, they suggested that the 120-day retrial period did not begin to run until the issuance of the mandate in Wolfe II.  Both contentions were rejected.  First, the Fourth Circuit determined that the retrial had to be completed within the 120 day time limit.  Second, concerning whether the retrial period ran from the issuance of the mandate, the court explained that the stay pending the Commonwealth’s appeal paused or halted the 120-day deadline imposed by the Court to provide Wolfe a new trial. When that stay was lifted, the deadline clock resumed where it left off when the stay was granted and there were 36 days remaining.  The court agreed with the Commonwealth’s complaint that the completion of a retrial of a complex death penalty case within thirty-six days was a practical impossibility; however, they could have, and did not, seek either a clarification or an extension.

The Commonwealth next contended that the district court abused its discretion in barring Wolfe’s retrial. The Fourth Circuit agreed, asserting that preventing the retrial of a state criminal case is the “strongest of medicine” and should be utilized sparingly. The Court held that such limited and narrow circumstances were not present; therefore, the district court abused its discretion in barring Wolfe’s retrial. According to the court, any scenario presenting circumstances sufficiently extraordinary to warrant federal interference with a State’s reprosecution of a successful § 2254 petitioner will be extremely rare, and will ordinarily be limited to situations where a recognized constitutional error cannot be remedied by a new trial.  Here, the constitutional claims for which Wolfe was awarded habeas corpus relief were readily capable of being remedied in a new trial.

Full Opinion

-Kara S. Grevey

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