Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robins New on Friday ordered Walter Ogrod released from state prison on his own recognizance.
Ogrod, 55, is on death row at State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, in Collegeville. He was convicted of the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old Castor Gardens girl, Barbara Jean Horn.
Attorneys for Ogrod and the District Attorney’s Office asked New to vacate his sentence. 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 on his own recognizance.
Ogrod will have a new hearing in the near future, and charges could be dropped altogether.
Sharon Fahy, the mother of Barbara Jean, recently said in a court document, “There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately.”
Fahy also stated, “I am sad and angry to find out 32 years later that key evidence was withheld from me, my family and the courts. That evidence more than likely would have kept Mr. Ogrod off death row … My daughter is never coming home but I wanted justice for her, not simply a closed case with an innocent person in jail … The possibility that an innocent man might die in jail would only serve to multiply the pain Barbara Jean’s family has suffered.”
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, agrees that he should receive a new trial. ••