Walter Ogrod has insisted for decades that he did not kill 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn in Northeast Philadelphia in 1992, and the District Attorney’s Office — which prosecuted him for murder and sought to have him executed — said last month that it now believes he is innocent as well.
With the 55-year-old awaiting a court ruling on his latest bid for freedom, another voice has joined the chorus. Barbara Jean’s mother, Sharon Fahy, said in a sworn statement this week that she no longer believes Ogrod murdered her daughter, and said keeping him on death row “does nothing to accomplish my goal of bringing the person that killed my Barbara Jean to justice.”
“There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately,” the child’s mother wrote.
The declaration from Fahy, who declined to comment outside of her court filings, marks the first time that a relative of Barbara Jean has weighed in on Ogrod’s rejuvenated attempt to prove his innocence. Last month, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office said that Ogrod was "likely innocent,” and that his conviction was based on a coerced confession, unreliable witness testimony, and other flawed or hidden evidence.
Fahy’s support comes as Ogrod’s legal proceedings have been disrupted by the coronavirus. Courts have largely shut down amid the pandemic, and Ogrod’s lawyers say he has fallen ill in prison with symptoms they fear make him vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Fahy, in her declaration, said Ogrod’s precarious health added urgency to the situation.
“The possibility that an innocent man might die in jail would only serve to multiply the pain Barbara Jean’s family has suffered,” she said.
Ogrod cannot be released without a judge agreeing to vacate his conviction. Before the pandemic, Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robbins New canceled a March 27 hearing without explanation; lawyers said it seemed unlikely she would rule on the district attorney’s new filings before June.
On Monday, Ogrod’s attorneys and the District Attorney’s Office filed an emergency petition asking for a hearing as soon as possible. They asked that it take place by phone or video conference if needed, saying, “There is simply no reason to further delay this matter."
Ogrod has not tested positive for the coronavirus, and last month prison officials defied a court order to have him tested, saying there was “absolutely no indication" he needed one.
Since then, seven inmates and four guards have tested positive for the coronavirus at State Correctional Institute Phoenix, where Ogrod is housed. The entire state prison system has been placed under quarantine, as advocates and corrections officers worry about the virus’ spreading rapidly behind bars.