Walter Ogrod spent more than 23 years on death row while insisting he had been wrongfully convicted of killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn in Northeast Philadelphia in 1988.
On Friday, the criminal justice system agreed.
Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robins-New overturned Ogrod’s conviction months after the District Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys had agreed it was tainted by critical flaws — including key evidence withheld by police and prosecutors who put him behind bars, a coerced confession, and unreliable testimony from jailhouse snitches.
During a virtual hearing conducted via Zoom, Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood tearfully apologized to Ogrod and to Barbara Jean’s family, calling the case a “failure” for them and for the city.
“We not only stole 28 years of your life, but we threatened to execute you based on falsehoods,” Wood told Ogrod.
Though the audience in the virtual courtroom had to watch a video call, several members of the gallery could be seen wiping tears from their faces as his conviction was officially dissolved.
Ogrod — who had fallen ill in prison as the coronavirus took hold in March but has recovered — was released from SCI Phoenix on Friday afternoon. He met a group of about 10 relatives and friends at a Wawa parking lot about 12:20 p.m., embracing his brother, Greg, and at one point having to brace himself on a parked car while overcome with emotion.
One of his attorneys, Andrew Gallo, said in court: “Until today, our society — our justice system — has failed Walter Ogrod and Barbara Jean’s family.”
District Attorney Larry Krasner said at a news conference that it was “hard to celebrate” a case that had caused so much pain. But, he said, “these kinds of events, in which the system corrects itself, are absolutely essential to the restoration of trust between the community and law enforcement.”
Barbara Jean’s mother, Sharon Fahy, said at the same news conference that she now believed in Ogrod’s innocence, too, and was happy he would be released.
“All we wanted was the truth,” Fahy said.
‘Gross miscarriage of justice’
Barbara Jean’s naked remains were found on July 12, 1988, inside a cardboard box on the 1400 block of St. Vincent Street, not far from her family’s house and across from where Ogrod lived.
The case shocked the city but went cold for nearly four years. In early 1992, it was reassigned to homicide Detectives Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell.
Ogrod allegedly confessed to them, saying he beat Barbara Jean with a weight bar in his basement.
But in court documents filed this year, Krasner’s office said Ogrod had been sleep-deprived and manipulated when speaking to the detectives. And prosecutors said the 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.”
Prosecutors said they no longer found his confession credible.
There were other holes in the case, according to Krasner’s office. Chief among them was that Barbara Jean likely died of asphyxiation, but police and trial prosecutors had withheld that information from Ogrod’s attorneys to advance the theory that she was beaten to death.
The office also said a new DNA test conducted during the appeal process did not show any link between Ogrod and Barbara Jean.
And prosecutors accused their predecessors of relying on false testimony from jailhouse informants John Hall and Jay Wolchansky, saying the men had “colluded” on a bogus statement against Ogrod. Wolchansky had mental health problems that were not disclosed to Ogrod’s attorneys, prosecutors said, while Hall — a cooperating witness in 12 homicides between 1983 and 1997 — was so notorious for securing jailhouse confessions that he was known as “the Monsignor.”
Wolchansky did not testify at Ogrod’s first trial in 1993, which ended in a mistrial after 11 jurors voted to acquit and one panelist did not agree. At Ogrod’s retrial three years later, with Wolchansky bolstering the prosecution, Ogrod was convicted and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors in Krasner’s office earlier this year called the case a “gross miscarriage of justice.”
“There exists no credible evidence to prove Ogrod was the person who murdered Barbara Jean,” they wrote.
‘We must be better’
The revelations angered Fahy, Barbara Jean’s mother, who in April submitted a sworn statement supporting Ogrod’s release after prosecutors had told her about the problems with the case.
“There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately,” she wrote.
Fahy watched Friday’s proceedings from the District Attorney’s Office. Wood told her: “This office [had] not told you the truth about what happened to your little girl so many years ago. The truth is painful and terrible, but it is what you deserved to hear from this office, and we did not do that. And I am so sorry.”
Wood also said the true perpetrator has remained unidentified, which she said “made the streets less safe.”
“For that, this office must apologize,” Wood said. “And we must be better.”
The case marks the 13th murder conviction that Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit has helped overturn since he was sworn into office in 2018. And it is the second case the unit has said was marred by coerced confessions secured by Detectives Devlin and Worrell.
Two other convictions tied to the detectives had been overturned before Krasner took office.
Prosecutors said last year that they are reviewing an unspecified number of other cases tied to Devlin and Worrell, who have denied previous allegations of wrongdoing.
Despite Friday’s victory for Ogrod, his legal travails are not over. Robins-New agreed to vacate his conviction but said she did not have the ability to toss his case.
Instead, she granted him a new trial — one prosecutors made clear they will not pursue. They will have to return to court at a future date and ask another judge to formally drop the charges.
In the meantime, Robins-New agreed to downgrade Ogrod’s case to third-degree murder, making him eligible for bail.
For the first time since he was arrested nearly three decades ago, Ogrod was allowed to go home.
Photographer Margo Reed contributed to this article.