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

For more than a quarter-century, Death Row inmate Walter Ogrod has waged a lonely fight to prove cops got the wrong guy in a grisly 1988 murder. Now, a popular TV show and a new Philadelphia DA are listening.

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

The youthful, flowing hair from his police mug shot is now turning gray, and the ink has long faded on the made-for-tabloid headlines about the sensational 1988 murder case — a 4-year-old girl found naked and left for dead in a TV box on a Northeast Philadelphia street — that has caused him to spend more than half of his life behind bars, mostly on death row.

But even as the city mostly forgot all about Walter Ogrod, the inmate and a handful of unlikely advocates have never stopped pressing his case that he faces execution for a crime he didn't commit — arrested after a coerced confession and ultimately convicted through jailhouse snitches whose work has since been thoroughly discredited.

Now, deep into a new century, Ogrod and his supporters are feeling a new and unexpected sensation: hope. Hope that for the first time since a prison door slammed behind the Northeast Philly native after his 1996 murder conviction, people in the right places are finally listening to his story that he had nothing to do with the tragic slaying of the little girl, Barbara Jean Horn.

On Sunday night, Ogrod's crusade goes national with a one-hour documentary episode on the HLN (the CNN-owned Headline News Network) series Death Row Stories, which presents compelling evidence that the snitch testimony that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office used to convict Ogrod was fabricated. But an even greater source of hope for Ogrod is the recent seismic shift in the city's criminal-justice climate.

The Inquirer and Daily News have learned that the district attorney's conviction review unit — beefed up under new reform-minded DA Larry Krasner, who brought in a high-powered conviction-integrity specialist from Texas, Patricia Cummings — is now formally reviewing Ogrod's conviction, which his current lawyers have been appealing for more than a decade.

What's more, DA's Office spokesman Ben Waxman also confirmed that prosecutors will no longer fight to block the long and so far unsuccessful effort by Ogrod's lawyers to have key evidence in the case — including fingernail scrapings from the victim — undergo state-of-the-art DNA testing, which they believe could prove their client's innocence.

"We are hopeful," said James Rollins, the Boston attorney who's been fighting to overturn Ogrod's death sentence since the mid-2000s. Rollins confirmed that he's been engaged in talks with prosecutors over what evidence — such as the box where Barbara Jean's body was found near Rutland Street on July 12, 1988, for example — will eventually be tested.

Bari Pearlman, the award-winning documentarian who produced Sunday night's HLN episode, titled "Snitch Work," has been in touch with Ogrod — currently imprisoned in Greene County in the rural southwestern corner of Pennsylvania — and described his recent mood as "measured optimism." The "measured" part is more than understandable.

Pearlman, Rollins, and others involved with the case agreed that Ogrod's innocence fight never would have gotten this far without the efforts of one highly unlikely figure — now-New Orleans-based author Thomas Lowenstein, who met Ogrod in 2003 while researching what he'd thought would be a book about capital punishment. After spending three days talking to Ogrod in the Pennsylvania state lockup, Lowenstein left instead convinced that Philly cops and prosecutors had put away the wrong man — and has spent the next 15 years trying to prove it.

"They're going to kill this guy — and he's innocent," the author says in the HLN program, which hews very closely to the text of Lowenstein's riveting book on the case published just last year, The Trials of Walter Ogrod. The writer's own unusual odyssey — his interest in crime and punishment stems from the murder of his father, the renowned 1960s-activist-turned-U.S.-congressman Allard Lowenstein, killed in 1980 by a mentally ill acolyte — adds moral ballast to the narrative. But the core of the story is what his reporting turned up.

Both the book and the program raise serious doubt about the police work of the homicide detectives who — after the murder trail had grown cold for four years — took in Ogrod, a then-25-year-old neighbor who worked as a truck driver and is described by Lowenstein as "slow," for questioning exactly 26 years ago, April 5, 1992. They reportedly kept him awake for 14 hours, told him he was repressing memories of killing Barbara Jean, and finally got him to sign a confession.

A year later, a jury almost didn't buy it; it filled out a slip finding Ogrod — never linked to any physical evidence in the case — "not guilty," but when the panel returned to the courtroom for the verdict reading, one of the jurors blurted out that he disagreed, causing a mistrial. At Ogrod's second trial in 1996, prosecutors presented a different theory of the case that didn't rely on the confession but on testimony from a jailhouse snitch who claimed Ogrod had told him details of the killing.

The snitch who testified at trial had been introduced to Ogrod by another, more experienced jailhouse informant who'd also contacted prosecutors about the case — the notorious John Hall, nicknamed "The Monsignor" after he'd been linked to so many high-profile confessions. By the late 1990s, Hall's credibility had been questioned by some police and prosecutors, but by then Ogrod had been found guilty and placed on death row.

In Sunday's telecast, Pearlman gets Phyllis Hall — widow of John Hall, who died in the 2000s — to go on camera with the same explosive claim that she'd earlier made to Lowenstein, that she'd fed information to her husband to help him fabricate stories about not just Ogrod but many other criminal defendants.

Phyllis Hall says, "I helped him put Walter on death row" — sending her husband newspaper clippings that helped him make up a story that he then fed to his fellow inmate who testified, Jay Wolchansky. "The homicide detectives and the district attorney fed John Hall the information, she said, describing her late husband's work in multiple cases. "He would get some of the truth and he would sit in his cell and make up stories – and he was darned good at it."

The lead prosecutor in Ogrod's second trial, Judi Rubino, tells Lowenstein in a taped interview that's replayed in the broadcast that his evidence for perjury is lacking, unless Wolchansky himself recanted. The cops who interrogated Ogrod and other key figures in the case declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

Although Rollins and other attorneys took on Ogrod's appeal, pro bono, not long after Lowenstein published his preliminary findings in a Philadelphia City Paper series in 2004, the wheels of justice have spun in super-duper slow motion. That's in part because lawyers for Philadelphia's district attorneys — including Lynne Abraham, the "Deadliest DA" who pursued the death penalty with zeal and was in charge during Ogrod's prosecution, and her successor, Seth Williams — vigorously fought Ogrod's team at every step, including the requests for DNA testing that wouldn't have been possible in the 1990s.

After I wrote about Lowenstein's book last year, Krasner — at the time still a Democratic candidate in a crowded primary field — issued a statement that while he could not weigh in on the specifics of the Ogrod case, "it is clear that for decades the practice and policy of the District Attorney's Office has been to win convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself." Now that Krasner is DA, the news of a changed stance toward DNA testing and a fresh review of Ogrod's conviction seem to be making good on that pledge.

"Walter feels like the stars are finally aligning," said Pearlman, who hopes that telling Ogrod's story on a national TV show will raise the profile of what she believes is a miscarriage of justice.

Then-candidate Krasner also said this back in 2017: "Four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was murdered. If the wrong person went to death row for it — and I specify that I am saying if — then the person who did murder her walked free."

Indeed, that's a point that Lowenstein and Pearlman — whose program features sympathetic audio with Barbara Jean's mother and stepfather, Sharon and John Fahy, who have believed that Ogrod killed their daughter — can't stress enough. If it can be proved that Walter Ogrod spent half his life locked up for a crime he didn't commit, that's not the only huge injustice here. It also means that a monster who assaulted a 4-year-girl and stuffed her naked body in a box got away with it, and that is unconscionable.