A dozen students in a UVA law clinic got involved with drugs last fall, but they did it to clear the name of a client sentenced to die.
The students, all in the UVA Innocence Project Clinic, pored over evidence that prosecutors improperly withheld in their case against Justin Wolfe, who was convicted of murder-for-hire in 2002 and sentenced to death. The case, which drew national attention, revealed an extensive drug ring run by middle-class youths in suburban Northern Virginia.
Using information from witnesses the students interviewed—coupled with their findings in the withheld evidence—the students assisted Wolfe’s attorneys in crafting a strategy for a November hearing on the evidence in federal court. In the face of the new information, the admitted shooter—who had testified in 2002 that Wolfe hired him to commit the murder—took the stand and recanted his story.
The students were in the courtroom and were able to see the fruits of their research being presented in the case. “And then [they got to] watch the shooter take the stand and say, ‘[Wolfe] had nothing to do with this,’” said Deirdre Enright (Law ’92), director of investigations for the clinic.
“This, for me, to be honest, was completely life changing,” said Bernadette Donovan (Law ’11), a student in the clinic.
As of press time, the federal district court judge had not ruled on whether the conviction should be vacated and the case sent back to state court.
Launched in 2008 by Enright, the Innocence Project Clinic provides UVA law students the opportunity to investigate the convictions of potentially innocent people incarcerated in Virginia, many of whom are victims of poor lawyering or questionable police techniques.