In an emotional hearing on Friday morning, a Philadelphia judge overturned the wrongful conviction of Walter Ogrod, a move that will see him released after more than two decades on death row.
The vindication of Ogrod has been a long time coming. Prosecutors agreed months ago that state misconduct had wrongly condemned him and that Ogrod should be released, yet the judge failed to act, even as the pandemic set in and Ogrod, now 55, became seriously ill.
“Walter Ogrod’s case is impossibly tragic,” James Rollins, one of Ogrod’s attorneys, said in a statement after the hearing. “This innocent man and his family lost almost 30 years that they should have spent together. Instead, that irreplaceable time together is gone, lost to a system that keeps making the same mistakes.”
On July 12, 1988, a neighbor found the naked and beaten body of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn partially covered by a trash bag inside a cardboard box on a curb in Philadelphia, less than 1,000 feet from her home.
She’d been missing for several hours, and shortly after her body was found, five separate eyewitnesses from the neighborhood told police about a man they’d seen outside with a cardboard box that afternoon. The descriptions were fairly similar. None of them named or described their 23-year-old neighbor, Ogrod, who lived across the street from Horn.
Despite promising leads, the case went cold until 1992, when a pair of detectives, Marty Devlin and Paul Worrell, picked up the case and ultimately set their sights on Ogrod. He would be tried twice and convicted in 1996 on the thinnest of evidence: a questionable confession Ogrod made to police after hours of interrogation, which he immediately recanted, and the testimony of a notorious jailhouse informant. Ogrod has since maintained his innocence, and no physical evidence has ever tied him to the crime.
The office concluded that Ogrod was convicted based on a staggering level of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s conviction integrity unit agreed to review the case. After a year of inquiry, the office concluded that Ogrod was convicted based on a staggering level of police and prosecutorial misconduct, including numerous instances of the state failing to turn over evidence that pointed to Ogrod’s innocence. “At trial, Ogrod found himself adrift in a perfect storm of unreliable scientific evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, Brady violations, and false testimony,” Krasner’s CIU chief, Patricia Cummings, wrote to the court in a brief filed in February. Based on its investigation, the DA’s office joined Ogrod’s defense team in asking for his release from prison. “Ogrod is likely innocent, and his continued incarceration constitutes an ongoing miscarriage of justice. The commonwealth urges this court to grant Ogrod relief and vacate his conviction and sentence.”
After inexplicable delays — during which Ogrod became seriously ill with symptoms of Covid-19 — on June 5, Judge Shelley Robins-New finally agreed that Ogrod’s conviction should be overturned.
The hearing was conducted remotely amid the ongoing pandemic and demonstrations against police brutality on the streets of Philadelphia. Walter, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and a face mask, watched from prison. His brother, Greg, and Horn’s mother, Sharon Fahy, were also watching from afar. In April, Fahy signed a declaration expressing her belief in Ogrod’s innocence. “There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately.” Fahy watched the hearing in a room with Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood, who presented the state’s case to Robins-New, and issued an extraordinary series of apologies to Ogrod, Fahy, and the residents of Philadelphia.
“First, I must turn to Mr. Ogrod and his family and friends,” Wood began. “I am sorry it took 28 years for us to listen to what Barbara Jean was trying to tell us” about how she was killed. “That you are innocent. That the words on that statement came from detectives and not you. And that we not only stole 28 years of your life, but that we threatened to execute you based on falsehoods.”
“This office has not told you the truth about what happened to your little girl so many years ago.”
Wood began to cry. “Next, I must apologize to Sharon Fahy and her family. This office has not told you the truth about what happened to your little girl so many years ago. The truth is painful, and terrible, but it is what you deserved to hear from this office. And we did not do that. And I am so sorry.” She choked up before continuing. “One of the most difficult things for me is not being able to tell you who did this to Barbara Jean. I can’t imagine the pain of thinking a chapter of your life has been closed only for it to reopen with unanswered questions.”
“It is important that you know, and hold onto this in the times when the pain might be unbearable, that us taking the time to listen to what Barbara Jean had to say has saved Walter Ogrod’s life.”
Finally, she addressed the city. “The errors made in this case made the streets less safe and I fear that the true perpetrator in this case, having been left on the streets, may have brought harm to others,” she said. “That is the impact of … wrongful convictions on our community. And for that, this office must apologize. And we must do better.”
Robins-New ultimately agreed that the conviction should be set aside. But when the prosecutors said that they would immediately move to drop the charges, Robins-New said that the DA would have to take that up in a different court — a court that is not currently in session because of closures related to the nation’s ongoing crises. Cummings stepped in to say that in the interim, then, the state would ask that the charges against Ogrod be reduced from capital murder to third-degree homicide “such that he be eligible for bail, and we would request that he be released.”
After a brief recess, Robins-New agreed, though she set bail at $50,000 — “it’s still a murder charge; an appropriate bail should be set, but I’m certainly aware of all of the circumstances and I assume that the parties will know how to proceed to deal with the prison and those issues,” she said. “That should conclude the hearing.” Ogrod’s lawyers say he will be released today; he will go home to his brother Greg in Philadelphia.
“Today, Mr. Ogrod has been given the opportunity to put his unfair trial and harrowing incarceration behind him and begin to create a new, better life,” Rollins, Ogrod’s defense attorney, said. “It is a profound moment, filled with happiness and hope. Not only for Mr. Ogrod, but also for other innocent, wrongfully convicted individuals. There is hope that the system will learn from Mr. Ogrod’s case and there is hope that Barbara Jean Horn’s real killer will be brought to justice.”