Law students help overturn conviction
Innocence Project Clinic at University succeeds in effort to aid in exoneration of Justin Wolfe after decade-long fight for freedom
Twelve University Law students helped overturn the wrongful drug and weapon conviction of Northern Virginian man Justin Wolfe last week, bringing an end to a decade-long struggle for freedom.
The decision comes more than a month after the students, as part of the Law School's Innocence Project Clinic, helped convince a federal judge to dismiss Wolfe's murder-for-hire conviction and death sentence.
"This has been a nightmare for 10 long years, and I'm just so grateful that the truth has finally came out," Wolfe's mother, Terri Steinberg, said in an interview.
The clinic, part of the Innocence Network, is an organization which works to overturn wrongful convictions of prisoners in Virginia who could be proven innocent - many of whom are convicted as a result of ineffective legal counsel or flawed police techniques.
Judge Raymond Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed with a motion drafted by members of the clinic arguing that the jury's verdict was the result of a flawed trial. He consequently tossed out the convictions and a 33-year sentence, according to a statement released by the Law School.
After an evidentiary hearing last November, Jackson found that the prosecutor had failed to share critical evidence with Wolfe's attorney. This information helped the clinic work to exonerate Wolfe from involvement in the murder, said Clinic Director of Investigations Deirdre Enright, Wolfe, a member of a drug ring run by middle-class youths in Prince William County, was falsely accused of murder-for-hire in 2001, though he claimed to have no knowledge of the murder. He turned himself in for questioning to prove his innocence, yet ended up on a death row instead, according to justice4justin.net, a website built to draw public attention to Wolfe's wrongful conviction and to seek help in an effort to exonerate him.
Wolfe would have been executed by now had the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals not sent his case back to the district court for closer review, Enright said. "In Virginia, capital murders are automatically reviewed by an appellate court," he said. "Nobody was interested in what [role] he was playing in what happened."
Matthew Engle, the clinic's legal director, said this kind of problem could be avoided if Virginia changed its laws to require prosecutors to share their files with defense lawyers.
"Once the judge ordered discovery, then it was very clear that Justin had been wrongfully convicted." Engle said.
The clinic examined thousands of pages of documents the judge had ordered from the prosecutor's file to pull out the hidden information.
"It's an opportunity to demonstrate somebody's innocence without using DNA," Enright said. Unlike the other innocence project branches in the nation, the University's clinic concentrates on cases not involving DNA evidence. Many people get wrongfully convicted because there is no DNA to prove their innocence, Enright said.
"There is no way I could ever thank those students and professors from the Innocence Project who have given me back my son," Steinberg said. "I'm so grateful that they took this on, that they fought so hard and brought my family back together"