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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Walter Ogrod Murder Case: Innocent Man on Death Row?

     On July 13, 1988 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a citizen discovered a cardboard box sitting among trash set out on the curb to be picked up. The box containing the naked and beaten body of a 12-year-old girl. The victim, Barbara Jean Horn, had resided on a nearby street with her mother and stepfather. She had gone missing the day before.

     According to the city medical examiner, the girl in the box had been struck four times in the head with a blunt object. There was no evidence she had been raped or sodomized.

     About the time Barbara Jean Horn was abducted, several neighborhood witnesses saw a man carrying a box that matched the container the victim's body had been found in. This unidentified man was described as white, in his mid-twenties to early thirties, five-foot-six to five nine, and weighing 165 to 175 pounds.

     As possible suspects, detectives questioned the victim's stepfather; the man who had purchased a television set housed in the box the body was found in; and a third man in the neighborhood who had a history of sex crimes involving young girls. Because the suspects didn't confess, and there was no crime scene evidence linking them to the girl, no one was charged. Without productive leads, the Barbara Jean Horn investigation came to a halt.

     In 1991, three years after Barbara Jean Horn's murder, a team of cold-case investigators reopened the homicide investigation. In April 1992, detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department questioned Walter Ogrod, a 27-year-old truck driver who lived with a married couple across the street from the victim and her family. The people Ogrod lived with had a son who regularly played with Barbara Jean Horn. Mr. Ogrod did not have a criminal record.

     Walter Ogrod, described by his mother as "slow" (he was on the autism spectrum), denied having anything to do with the girl's abduction and murder. But following a grueling, 14-hour interrogation without the presence of an attorney, Ogrod broke down and confessed. He signed a 16-page confession his interrogators insisted were in his own words.

     According to Ogrod's confession, he encountered the victim when she came across the street to play with the couple's son. He lured the girl into the basement with chocolate candy, and after forcing her to give him oral sex, beat her to death with a two-by-four. He removed her clothing, washed her body, and carried her in the box to where it had been found. (Ogrod matched the general description of the unidentified man seen carrying the box.)

     Immediately after signing the confession statement, Ogrod recanted, and insisted that he was innocent.

     Walter Ogrod went on trial for murder in October 1993. The prosecution, without an eyewitness or physical evidence connecting him to the crime, relied heavily on his confession. Ogrod took the stand and professed his innocence. The jury, after deliberating nine hours, returned a verdict of guilty. However, when the judge polled the individual jurors, one of them announced that he disagreed with the verdict. The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The second Ogrod murder trial got underway on October 1, 1996. This time the prosecution, instead of relying on the improperly obtained confession written in a style that didn't match the defendant's way of speaking, produced two jailhouse informants who testified that Ogrod had confessed to them. Both of these snitches were known in the criminal justice community for selling out inmates for their own benefit. They were, to say the least, not credible. Nevertheless, the jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Walter Ogrod guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death.

     In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Ogrod conviction and death sentence.

     Over the next fifteen years, Walter Ogrod's attorneys kept fighting to establish his innocence and set him free. His story was featured in a television documentary and a movie which portrayed him as an innocent man awaiting execution.

     In April 2018, the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office's Conviction Integrity Unit opened an investigation into the Ogrod case. Two years later, attorneys with the district attorneys office filed a motion asking a judge to vacate Ogrod's conviction on grounds of police misconduct, false testimony, and exonerating physical evidence. According to the motion, Walter Ogrod was "likely innocent." The judge set a hearing on the motion scheduled for June 5, 2020.

     On March 10,  2020, Walter Ogrod's attorneys filed an emergency petition to have their client released from custody. The request was based on the fact Mr. Ogrod had symptoms of COVID-19 and required immediate medical attention.

     On March 11, officials at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, Pennsylvania, pending the outcome of the COVID-19 petition, placed Ogrod into isolation.

     On March 22, 2020, a common pleas judge ordered Walter Ogrod's transfer out of prison to an outside hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

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