Lawyers demanding Walter Ogrod be tested for COVID-19

Counsel for death row inmate Walter Ogrod on Tuesday responded to the state Department of Corrections’ refusal to comply with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division’s order that the DOC transport Ogrod to an outside hospital for testing and treatment for possible COVID-19 infection.

The DOC refused to comply with the testing order, arguing that the Court lacked jurisdiction to order the testing and that unnamed prison doctors had said Ogrod did not need testing.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit supported Ogrod’s emergency health care motion.

The following is a statement from James Rollins, one of Ogrod’s attorneys:

“We are deeply troubled by the Department of Corrections’ refusal to allow Mr. Ogrod to be tested or otherwise to test Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19, particularly on a legal technicality. There is no legal or moral position that can support a failure to test Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19. Given the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, including limited access to courts across the Commonwealth, the Court’s order was a proper exercise of the Court’s emergency authority. Mr. Ogrod’s situation poses a threat not only to his own health, but to the health of other inmates, guards and staff at SCI-Phoenix.

“We continue to pursue Mr. Ogrod’s release after nearly three decades on  Pennsylvania’s death row for a crime he did not commit. His release would also allow for his immediate testing in the community for COVID-19. To make an innocent man remain even one extra day on death row is unjust. To leave him on death row showing symptoms of COVID-19 without adequate medical treatment would be unconscionable. All interested parties, including the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, have agreed that he was convicted based on unreliable scientific evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, due process violations, and false testimony.

“The court has not yet ruled on Mr. Ogrod’s motion seeking the court’s expedited ruling on his and the Commonwealth’s filings through which the Commonwealth concedes he is likely innocent and is entitled to have his conviction and sentence vacated. Every day that Mr. Ogrod, an innocent man, spends in prison is a shameful injustice. He has been through enough. It is past time for him to be released from his wrongful incarceration.”

Ogrod, 55, is on death row at State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, in Collegeville.

At the request of Ogrod’s lawyers, the DA’s office reviewed evidence and determined that he is “likely innocent” of the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old Castor Gardens girl, Barbara Jean Horn.

The office is asking a Common Pleas Court judge to vacate Ogrod’s conviction and sentence.

The Conviction Integrity Unit determined that prosecutors knew or should have known that Barbara Jean died of asphyxia, not by blows from a weight bar, as was alleged at trial. In addition, the CIU believes the jailhouse informants used at trial colluded for favorable treatment in their own cases. The unit ruled that Ogrod’s confession was false and unreliable. And it noted that the descriptions of men seen carrying a box on the day Barbara Jean’s body was found did not resemble and were smaller than the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Ogrod.

Barbara Jean was playing outside on the 7200 block of Rutland St. on July 12, 1988, when she disappeared. Her naked and battered body was found later in a plastic bag stuffed in a cardboard television box put out in the trash nearby on the 1400 block of St. Vincent St.

The case remained unsolved for four years, and Robert Stack ran a story on Unsolved Mysteries.

Police arrested Ogrod in 1992, after re-interviewing him and other neighbors. He lived across the street from Barbara Jean, who lived with her mom, Sharon, and stepfather, John Fahy.

Ogrod, a bakery delivery driver at the time of his arrest, signed a confession after being interrogated at the Roundhouse, admitting he lured Barbara Jean into the basement of his home at 7244 Rutland St. by offering her chocolate candy. Ogrod tried to sexually assault Barbara Jean and, when she screamed, hit her over the head with an iron bar from a weight-lifting set.

At his 1993 trial, Ogrod was almost found not guilty, but a juror  —  retired fireman Alfred Szewczak, of Fishtown  —  changed his mind at the last second. Because there were only 11 votes for an acquittal, a mistrial was granted.

In 1996, Ogrod went on trial again. This time, a jury convicted him of murder and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse after less than two hours of deliberation and sentenced him to die. The key testimony came from a jailhouse snitch who, Ogrod’s lawyers allege, received made-up information from John Hall, nicknamed “The Monsignor” for his incredible ability to elicit confessions from fellow inmates in major cases.

Ogrod appealed, arguing in part that police detectives coerced his confession and his attorney was ineffective.

The state Supreme Court, though, upheld the conviction and death sentence in 2003. Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham said, “We are gratified by the court’s decision to uphold the conviction and death penalty. The murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was especially brutal, and justice was done in this case.”

Then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed Ogrod’s death warrant in 2005.

Ogrod’s prosecutor in the 1996 retrial, Judy Rubino, agrees that he should receive a new trial. ••