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Philly man on death row 23 years for killing 4-year-old Northeast girl is ‘likely innocent,’ DA Larry Krasner says

Krasner’s office is asking a judge to vacate the conviction of Walter Ogrod, 55, and free him from prison, calling Ogrod’s case — prosecuted by Krasner’s predecessors — a “gross miscarriage of justice.”

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

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office says a man on death row 23 years for allegedly molesting and murdering a 4-year-old girl is “likely innocent,” and was convicted based on flawed, hidden, or corrupt evidence — including a confession prosecutors believe was coerced by two homicide detectives, and testimony from jailhouse informants whom prosecutors no longer find credible.

In court documents filed last week, DA Larry Krasner’s office asked a judge to vacate the 1996 conviction of Walter Ogrod, 55, and free him from prison, calling Ogrod’s case — prosecuted by Krasner’s predecessors — a “gross miscarriage of justice.”

Ogrod, according to Krasner’s office, “found himself adrift in a perfect storm of unreliable scientific evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, Brady violations, and false testimony.” Krasner’s office said that prior prosecutors violated the so-called Brady rule by illegally withholding evidence that could have helped Ogrod’s defense.

Among other assertions, Krasner’s office saysthat the victim, Barbara Jean Horn, likely died of asphyxiation, but that police and prosecutors suppressed that fact while asserting that Ogrod had fatally beaten the girl with a weight bar during a fit of sexual rage.

The accusations against the detectives and informants also suggest that Krasner’s office believes Ogrod’s case was one of several to be tainted by separate patterns of misconduct.

The detectives, prosecutors said, “engaged in coercive tactics in obtaining false confessions and/or statements … in at least two homicide cases before they interrogated” Ogrod in 1992. Krasner’s office helped overturn another conviction connected to the now-retired detectives, Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell, in October, and has said it is investigating others tied to them.

Prosecutors also said the informants, John Hall and Jay Wolchansky, were inmates together and “colluded” on a statement against Ogrod, claiming he’d confessed to the crime while jailed with them.

The DA’s Office said it discovered hundreds of letters Hall — a cooperating witness in 12 homicides between 1983 and 1997 — had sent to his wife describing his so-called snitch scheme. And prosecutors said they interviewed Hall’s wife, who admitted compiling newspaper articles about Ogrod for her husband — and writing to Ogrod pretending to be a stripper to help Hall get additional details about the case.

Krasner’s office in the last two years has helped secure exonerations of 12 men convicted of murder, often saying that predecessors had failed to disclose evidence potentially helpful to defendants as required by law.

Even so, the allegations of wrongdoing against Ogrod stand out, with prosecutors Patricia Cummings and Carrie Wood writing in an appellate document that after discounting the evidence they now find unreliable, “there exists no credible evidence to prove Ogrod was the person who murdered Barbara Jean.”

Ogrod is due in court March 27, and a judge is expected to decide whether to vacate his conviction and clear the path for his release. His case has previously been chronicled in a book and on television shows, and Krasner on the campaign trail wrote about it while describing how he’d change the culture of the DA’s Office.

Krasner’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, declined to comment Tuesday, and Ogrod’s attorneys did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Barbara Jean’s naked remains were found July 12, 1988, inside a cardboard television box on the 1400 block of St. Vincent Street, a short walk from her family’s home in the Castor section of Northeast Philadelphia.

At the time, court documents say, Ogrod lived across the street from the girl’s house. He was interviewed during a neighborhood canvas after the murder but not considered a suspect, and the case went cold.

In early 1992, the documents say, the case was reassigned to Devlin and Worrell, and they began reviewing the file and seeking additional interviews. In addition, the documents say, one of their colleagues had an unusual connection to the case: In 1986, he’d investigated a stabbing in the basement of Ogrod’s home. Ogrod’s brother survived the attack, but 16-year-old Maureen Dunne — the daughter of a police detective — was killed.

Prosecutors now assert that photographs taken during that investigation — which led to an arrest — became key to prosecuting Ogrod over the death of Barbara Jean. In particular, they say a weight bar in one of the photos was later referenced as the weapon that Ogrod used to kill the girl, and that Ogrod allegedly admitted using it during a confession he gave to Devlin and Worrell.

Prosecutors now say they don’t believe Ogrod’s statement to the detectives, that he’d been sleep-deprived and manipulated. He recanted almost immediately; Krasner’s office said case files contained “a plethora of information regarding how Devlin and Worrell had a history of using coercive techniques to obtain confessions and incriminating suspects.”

In recent years, Devlin has been repeatedly accused of forcing men to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Since 2016, three convictions featuring confessions he helped secure have been overturned, and two men — Anthony Wright and Shaurn Thomas — have settled lawsuits claiming misconduct for millions of dollars each.

Neither Devlin nor Worrell has commented publicly on the allegations of misconduct.

Lynne Abraham, who was district attorney in the 1990s, said in an interview Tuesday that she was not aware at the time of the allegations against Devlin or Worrell, and did not recall many of the details about Ogrod’s prosecution. But she said: “I never prosecuted a case where I knew there were coercive tactics.”

In Ogrod’s case, Krasner’s office said two doctors recently reviewed Barbara Jean’s autopsy reports and concluded her injuries were not consistent with a beating death. One of the trial prosecutors, according to Krasner’s office, also took notes indicating that a medical expert had “concluded that Barbara Jean died from asphyxia,” but the notes were not disclosed to Ogrod’s lawyers.

Ogrod was first tried in 1993, but a mistrial was declared after 11 jurors voted to acquit and one panelist did not agree. The jury foreperson at the time told the Daily News that most jurors did not find Ogrod’s supposed confession credible. Another juror told The Inquirer at the time: “There were gaping holes in the prosecution’s case. … I didn’t put much stock in the recanted confession. I wanted to see evidence.”

At the next trial, three years later, prosecutors returned with new evidence: Ogrod’s supposed jailhouse confession to Wolchansky. A jury convicted him on Oct. 8, 1996.

But the DA’s Office now says prosecutors never disclosed evidence of Wolchansky’s “severe" mental health problems. And they call the details of his statement, including the claim that Ogrod beat Barbara Jean with a weight bar, “demonstrably false.”