Walter Ogrod released, charges to be dropped

From left: Two of Barbara Jean Horn’s aunts; Sharon Fahy, Barbara Jean’s mom; and Assistant District Attorneys Patricia Cummings and Carrie Wood.

Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robins New on Friday morning ordered Walter Ogrod released from state prison on his own recognizance.

Ogrod, 55, was on death row at State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, in Collegeville, before his release. He was convicted of the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old Castor Gardens girl, Barbara Jean Horn.

Attorneys for Ogrod, along with Carrie Wood and Patricia Cummings, of the District Attorney’s Office, asked New to vacate his conviction and sentence during a Zoom hearing. The judge agreed, meaning he would get a new trial.

Next, the DA’s office asked New to lower the charges to third-degree murder and set bail at $50,000. The judge agreed to the lower charges, and ordered Ogrod released.

Ogrod will have a new hearing in the near future, and the DA’s office is expected to drop all charges.

James Rollins, one of Ogrod’s lawyers, said, “The brutal injustice of Walter Ogrod’s case is impossibly tragic. 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.

“This is a case where no forensic evidence tied Mr. Ogrod to the crime, where eyewitness descriptions didn’t match Mr. Ogrod and where police coerced a false confession from Mr. Ogrod, which got many of the facts incorrect about the crime he allegedly committed. The state presented false testimony, unconstitutionally withheld exculpatory evidence and relied on unreliable jailhouse informant testimony to convict an innocent man of a brutal murder.

“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.”

Sharon Fahy, the mother of Barbara Jean, recently said in a court document that she believes Ogrod is innocent.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said: “I want to thank ADA Wood and the Conviction Integrity Unit led by ADA Patricia Cummings for their principled and persistent determination to seek justice based on facts and evidence, always. On behalf of this office, I apologize to Walter Ogrod and his family. I hope he will soon be officially declared innocent of this horrendous crime, making him the 13th individual to be exonerated under my administration. I also express my heartfelt gratitude to Sharon Fahy and her family, who have lived through unimaginable pain and trauma, but nonetheless spoke up when they realized Walter was innocent, and who are still awaiting justice for the murder of their little girl 31 years ago.”

At Friday’s hearing, Wood fought back tears as she apologized to Ogrod, who was also on the Zoom meeting.

“I’m sorry it took 28 years,” she said.

Andrew Gallo, who spoke at the hearing, has represented Ogrod for 13 years.

“Walter Ogrod did not kill Barbara Jean Horn,” he said.

The DA’s 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, ultimately agreed that he should receive a new trial. ••