Walter Ogrod is now a free man after living for almost 30 years in prison, including 24 years on Pennsylvania's death row waiting to be executed for a murder that prosecutors no longer believe he committed.
As Reason previously reported, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) released findings earlier this year that Ogrod was "likely innocent" of the 1988 murder of Barbara Jean Horn. No witnesses or DNA evidence ever tied him to the crime. Instead, Ogrod was convicted after detectives used coercive tactics to extract a false confession. CIU found that the detectives involved in Ogrod's case were tied to at least five other cases where coercive tactics resulted in false confessions. CIU also uncovered prosecutorial misconduct in Ogrod's trials. Prosecutors used unreliable jailhouse informants to testify against Ogrod and suppressed evidence of Horn's true cause of death.
In March, Ogrod began to display COVID-19 symptoms. Ogrod's lawyers attempted to get him proper treatment and out of State Correctional Institution Phoenix, as prisons have been hit hardest by the pandemic. A judge ordered his transportation to a hospital for treatment, but the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did not comply. The order was eventually vacated on jurisdictional grounds and Ogrod was forced to wait until June for relief.
On Friday, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Shelley Robins New vacated Ogrod's conviction and sentence.
James Rollins, who represents Ogrod, reacted in a statement.
"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. 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," he said.
Hannah Cox, National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Ogrod's case was "just the latest example of a broken system that risks the life and liberty of innocent people."
Ogrod's advocates included Sharon Fahy, Horn's mother, who has tragically gone 30 years without knowing the identity of the man who murdered her young daughter. Fahy previously filed an amicus brief in support of Ogrod's petition for postconviction relief in March.
"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," she said at the time.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Walter Ogrod spent almost 30 years on death row. While Ogrod has been in prison since 1992, he was sentenced to death row in 1996. Ogrod has been on death row for 24 years.