The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) announced two months ago that 55-year-old Walter Ogrod was "likely innocent" of the 1988 murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, a crime for which Ogrod was convicted and sentenced to die in 1996. Ogrod's attorneys are now racing to get his conviction overturned and his release secured as COVID-19 rages through America's jails and prisons.
Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings and the CIU released a stipulation of fact on February 28 detailing how investigators coerced a statement from Ogrod, used unreliable jailhouse informants, and suppressed evidence that would have vindicated Ogrod. "Ogrod was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three decades on death row—and all agree his incarceration constitutes cruel and unusual punishment," Cummings concluded. "Having concluded that Ogrod is likely innocent, the Commonwealth urges this Court to vacate his convictions and sentence."
Yet more than a month after Cummings' office asked the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas to vacate Ogrod's conviction and set him free, he remains behind bars. Worse still, his lawyer says Ogrod is now showing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. If his conviction is not overturned immediately, Ogrod may die in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Barbara Jean Horn was found dead inside a box on a Philadelphia street less than a mile from her home on July 12, 1988. At least five witnesses told investigators that they saw a man carrying or dragging the box in the area on the day she was murdered. An autopsy revealed scalp lacerations and brain swelling.
None of the witnesses identified Ogrod, who lived across the street from Horn's stepfather, as the man moving the box; no witnesses saw Horn enter Ogrod's residence; no DNA evidence has ever tied Ogrod to the murder. Horn's case was declared cold and not reopened until 1992, when Philadelphia's Special Investigations Unit tasked Detectives Marty Devlin and Paul Worrell to reinvestigate. After re-interviewing residents, Devlin and Worrell asked Ogrod to meet them at the station to give an interview as a witness.
The detectives pieced together a theory grounded in pure speculation. The meat of their case hinged on an offense that Ogrod had nothing to do with.
Two years before Jean's murder, three men broke into the house where Ogrod lived with his brother Greg and at least one other man. The three men went to the basement and assaulted Greg Ogrod and his girlfriend, Maureen Dunne. Greg Ogrod survived the attack, but Dunne, the daughter of a police detective, was killed. One of the Ogrod brothers' roommates was eventually convicted for the crime.
Homicide detectives investigating the murder of Dunne had taken extensive photos of the basement in Ogrod's home. Devlin and Worrell used these photos when they re-investigated the Horn murder to concoct a theory that Ogrod had used a weight-machine lateral pulldown bar featured in one of the photos to cause the injuries to Horn's head. But this was just a theory. Nothing in Ogrod's home actually connected him to the murder of Horn.
When Ogrod sat down to interview with Devlin and Worrell, he had just finished an 18-hour drive. The interview was not recorded, and the statement Ogrod eventually signed was written by Devlin, not by Ogrod himself. The handwritten Devlin confession claims that Ogrod invited Jean to his basement and asked if she wanted to play doctor; that once in the basement, Ogrod removed Jean's clothing and attempted to make a sexual advance; and that Ogrod began to hit Jean in the back of the head with the pull-down bar when she started to scream.
During his first trial, Ogrod said the detectives used coercive tactics to manipulate and confuse him. Without a taped interview, Ogrod could not prove this had happened, but the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office would later uncover at least five other times Devlin and Worrell had used coercive tactics to extract false or unreliable confessions.
With no other evidence connecting Ogrod to Horn's death, the jury in his first trial, which began in 1993, submitted a verdict of not guilty. The proceedings ended in a mistrial, however, after one juror protested the verdict in open court.
Ogrod was convicted in a second trial, which began in 1996, based on the testimonies of jailhouse informants Jay Wolchansky and John Hall. The CIU investigation later uncovered a handwritten letter in trial prosecutor Judith Rubino's notes revealing that Wolchansky took medication for psychosis-inducing mental health issues. Rubino did not share that information with Ogrod's defense team or with the judge, and she allowed Wolchansky to deny in court that he had mental health problems.
Hall, meanwhile, was a suspiciously prolific jailhouse informant who aided prosecutors in 12 different homicide cases from 1983 and 1997. At least one assistant district attorney told the Philadelphia Daily News that he believed Hall fabricated his alleged conversation with another inmate in a different case. The News also noted that Hall was acting as an informant in five separate homicide cases at the same time that Hall's lawyer was negotiating charges against his client for "driving a stolen car, stealing license plates, and prescription drug fraud."
Rubino's notes also indicated that Dr. Lucy Rorke, a forensic neuropathologist testifying on behalf of the state, concluded that Jean's cause of death was asphyxiation, not blows to the head. Yet during the trial Rorke seemed to imply that the opposite was true, and Rubino never asked her medical opinion about the real cause of death. The CIU investigation also concluded that Jean likely died from asphyxiation and that the lacerations on Jean's skull were "rather light in weight and relatively thin in profile," meaning they were caused by a narrow object with sharp edges, not a rounded, heavy pull-down bar.
Recent DNA testing also undermines the case against Ogrod. While tissue slides and the rape kit are missing (and are thought to have been destroyed), a DNA profile of an unknown male was created based on biological matter obtained from Horn's autopsy. Not only did testing exclude Ogrod from the profile, but his DNA sample has yet to be associated with another crime since being uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System in 2019.
Ogrod became very sick in the middle of March. He had a high fever and was displaying respiratory conditions consistent with the novel coronavirus. Lacking access to medical resources, his counsel filed an emergency medical motion on March 18 through the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas asking for his transportation to an outside hospital for testing and treatment.
Citing CIU's findings that Ogrod was "likely innocent," Judge Leon Tucker ordered Ogrod's transfer to an outside hospital until he was "no longer at risk for transfer of COVID-19" on March 21. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did not comply with the order. Three days later, Tucker vacated the order entirely after determining that his court lacked jurisdiction.
Ogrod's fate hangs in the balance.
"The court has told Mr. Ogrod's counsel that it will hold a hearing on June 5 to consider the joint stipulation and respective filings of Mr. Ogrod and the district attorney, including, principally, the position that Mr. Ogrod's conviction should be overturned," says James Rollins, Ogrod's attorney. "We continue to petition the court to have this matter heard sooner because of Mr. Ogrod's innocence and in light of the present public health crisis."
"My daughter is never coming home but I wanted justice for her, not simply a closed case with an innocent person in jail," she stated. "Two families have already been destroyed. There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately."