Does VA Death Penalty Reversal Show Lopsided Justice System?


Almost 10 years ago, Justin Wolfe was convicted of murder in the killing of his drug supplier, Daniel Petrole Jr.. The entire case seems to have been built around a lie, says On Tuesday, a federal judge vacated Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence. While the decision exposes serious prosecutorial misconduct, it also illustrates a deeper problem: a capital punishment system that encourages bad behavior, then magnifies the sin by allowing that behavior to go undetected.

The man who actually shot Wolfe’s drug supplier—Owen Barber IV—was the main witness against Wolfe in the murder-for-hire case. But Barber recanted his testimony in a 2005 affidavit, saying he had lied on the stand after the police threatened him with the death penalty if he didn’t implicate Wolfe. After reviewing the prosecutorial misconduct in the case, Slate says the problem is more profound than a failure to train prosecutors in their constitutional obligations. It is the lopsided nature of the criminal justice system itself. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens has cited the system’s “imbalanced incentives.” Because prosecutors must always act tough on crime, Stevens said, the pressure to get convictions will always outweigh the benefits of protecting the rights of the defendant.

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