By Ron Keine
It’s been 10 long years. Justin Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, is living proof that persistence and determination pay off. I hope other mothers and family members of those wrongfully convi c ted take note of her triumph in doggedly pursuing justice for Justin. She is living proof that there is always hope for the wrongfully convicted. I want to be the first one to congratulate Justin on his vindication in U.S. District Court and for the decision by Judge Raymond A. Jackson to overturn his death sentence.
Every so often I come across a case that is so horrible, and so politically corrupt, that it totally renews my determination to stop the terrible injustice that is the death penalty in our country. It makes me more aware of why I do what I have been doing for so many years: working to stop our government from killing its own citizens.
In Virginia it is called the ” Trigger Man Law”. In Texas they call it the “Law of Parties”. In Illinois it is known as the “Law of Accountability”. Whatever the different states call it, it has been used by prosecutors for years to charge people like Justin with felony or capital murder, and sentence them to death.
This is a horrible, nonsensical, and arbitrary law designed to give prosecutors the ability to legally push for killing people who did not kill anybody. Not being satisfied with executing the actual murderer, they also get to kill the person who didn’t pull the trigger, but was merely present at the scene of the crime, or who is even only suspected of involvement on the basis of the false testimony of the actual killer, as in Justin’s case, for the same crime. Often the actual murderer will not receive the death penalty in exchange for implicating others, like Justin, who then get sent to death row instead.
In a nutshell, the law means that an accomplice can be executed for any felony which he or she was involved in, and a death occurred as a result. For example, if two guys steal a car and the driver uses it to purposely run over and kill a foe, the courts can also send the passenger to death row, even if he did not know the driver was going to kill somebody. Under this law, stealing a car is a felony crime and if a death resulted, it is punishable by death.
Another example is if a man robs a store and any death occurs, the getaway driver can also receive a death sentence, even though he never entered the store.
And this means any death at all. If the store owner panics and shoots a customer, cop, or an innocent bystander, the prosecutor gets to charge both the robber and the getaway driver with capital murder. He can even be allowed to argue for a death sentence for someone who loaned gas money to the robbers, knowing they were going to rob a store. This is not even close to the “an eye for an eye” justice that many death penalty supporters claim as their rationale for keeping the death penalty on the books in the United States.
Justin Wolfe , a mere teenager, was sent to death row under this law. Justin’s marijuana supplier was killed. The confessed killer said that Justin told him to do it. With that as the only evidence against him, Justin was convicted of murder and sent to death row to await his execution, while the actual killer got a lighter sentence. The killer later confessed that he lied and said Justin had nothing to do with it. It took ten years of heartbreaking struggle for Justin and his family to finally get the case overturned. In doing so, they also found out that the corrupt prosecutor knew Justin was innocent all along, and withheld this exculpatory evidence that would prove Justin innocent, a blatant Brady Violation.
It is typical that the prosecutor in Justin’s case has already blustered that he intends to retry Justin. In these cases, prosecutors, rather than admitting defeat and malfeasance, will try to stall an exonoration by saying that he is considering a retrial.
However, in this case he has no evidence because his only witness is flip flopping on whether Justin had a part in the murder. He has nothing to bring in a new trial. Corrupt prosecutors will most likely offer Justin two options. One is to fight for a few years longer for his freedom and complete exoneration; the other is to pressure Justin to cop a plea to a lesser charge related to the murder in exchange for time served.
However, I will bet a dime to a dollar that the prosecutor will not find enough evidence to retry Justin, especially since it is clear that exculpatory evidence had been suppressed at the first trial, and Justin will eventually be exonerated. Even though Justin will remain in jail a while longer while the prosecutor continues to stonewall justice, we are hopeful he will one day soon join our family of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.
Ron Keine is Assistant Director of Communications and Training at Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization founded by and for exonerated death row survivors.
Note from Witness to Innocence: Witness to Innocence recognizes individuals as exonerated death row survivors after their cases have been vetted and placed on the official list of death row exonerations maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). DPIC applies very strict and objective criteria for inclusion of cases on this list. Placement on the list is determined by the decisions of courts and prosecutors’ offices, not by the subjective judgment of advocates. The criteria for inclusion on the list are: defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death, and subsequently had their convictions overturned and were acquitted at retrial or all charges were dropped or they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.