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Pennsylvania prison system defies court order to test Philly death row inmate for the coronavirus

Despite a judge's order, Department of Corrections lawyers say that Walter Ogrod, 55, is being adequately monitored and treated in prison medical facilities. Ogrod's lawyers described the refusal to take him to a hospital for testing as "unconsciounable."

Police mug shot of Walter Ogrod taken April 6, 1992.
Police mug shot of Walter Ogrod taken April 6, 1992.Read morePhiladelphia Police

Pennsylvania prison officials are defying a Philadelphia judge’s order to take a man on death row for a 1988 murder to an outside hospital for testing and treatment of coronavirus symptoms he developed this month.

Lawyers for the Department of Corrections said Walter Ogrod, 55, is being adequately monitored and treated in prison medical facilities. They challenged the court’s jurisdiction to interfere with prison system operations in the context of a criminal case.

“Two medical doctors employed by the Department of Corrections have recently reviewed Mr. Ogrod’s condition, have conferred with each other, and have found absolutely no indication for testing Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19 at this time,” attorney Timothy A. Holmes wrote in a letter in response to the order Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker issued Saturday.

» READ MORE: Walter Ogrod's 22-year fight to escape death row gains hope from Krasner, documentary | Will Bunch

But Ogrod lawyer Samuel J.B. Angell said his client, who is incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, has been suffering from an “unspecified viral infection” for days and that time is of the essence. Tests for the flu came back negative and an outside doctor Ogrod’s attorneys hired to review his medical records determined that a coronavirus test was warranted.

“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,” Angell wrote in a response filed Monday.

The standoff highlights a growing concern that prisons could become hotbeds for transmission of the coronavirus.

On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the temporary release of up to 1,000 inmates from its jails, citing the “profound risk posed to people in correctional facilities arising from the spread of COVID-19,” and advocates, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, have called upon city and state officials to adopt similar measures.

But Ogrod’s case, in particular, poses a significant dilemma, his attorneys argue.

In court documents filed this month, Krasner’s office said the man is “likely innocent” and that his conviction was based on flawed, hidden, or tainted evidence, including a confession prosecutors believe was coerced by two homicide detectives and testimony from jailhouse informants whom prosecutors no longer find credible.

Ogrod was convicted in 1996 of killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, who lived across the street from him at the time in the city’s Castor section.

He was taken to a prison infirmary earlier this month with a cough, fever and difficulty breathing and was placed in isolation, after which his fever spiked to 106 degrees, his lawyers said.

Ogrod was returned to his cell on March 16 after his fever subsided, but according to his attorneys, “he is still coughing and having difficulty breathing, which Mr. Ogrod reports leaves him feeling like he is breathing through a wet sponge.”

“To make an innocent man remain even one extra day on death row is unjust,” Ogrod lawyer James Rollins said. “To leave him on death row showing symptoms of COVID-19 without adequate medical treatment would be unconscionable.”