Walter Ogrod served nearly 30 years on death row in Pennsylvania before winning his freedom in June 2020, after state prosecutors dismissed all charges from his 1996 capital murder conviction. Mr. Ogrod has maintained his innocence throughout his decades on death row and no physical evidence ever connected him to the crime. Just five days after Court of Common Pleas Judge Shelley Robins New overturned the capital murder conviction and reduced the charge to third-degree murder, another Court of Common Pleas Judge, Leon W. Tucker, granted the Philadelphia District Attorney’s motion to drop all charges.
In 2018, Mr. Ogrod’s case was opened for review by the Philadelphia District Attorney Conviction Integrity Unit. This review uncovered unreliable scientific evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, due process violations, and false testimony. Mr. Ogrod, who has been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, initially admitted to committing the crime after police interrogated him for somewhere between eight and sixteen hours. His confession included a statement saying that he used a weighted bar to kill four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, but the autopsy indicated that she likely died from asphyxia, and scientific evidence revealed that her injuries could not have been caused by a weighted bar. Additionally, the case review revealed that jailhouse informants who testified to Mr. Ogrod’s confession had provided false testimony to procure favorable treatment in their own cases. The informants’ personal motives for testifying were not disclosed at trial. The review also brought to light the lack of eyewitness testimony and physical evidence related to the crime. In January 2020, new DNA testing methods were used to test physical evidence from the victim’s body, with the results showing no connection to Mr. Ogrod.
As a result of the case review and new DNA results, both the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the victim’s mother supported Mr. Ogrod’s innocence claim and urged the court to release him. The victim’s mother, Sharon Fahy, signed a declaration in April 2020 saying, “There is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately.” Court filings urged an expedited hearing schedule, citing the spread of COVID-19 in jails. Mr. Ogrod, who is now in his 50s and in a high-risk population, had recently developed a fever and difficulty breathing, but tested negative for the flu.
On June 5, 2020, Judge Robins New overturned Mr. Ogrod’s conviction for capital murder. Though she denied having jurisdiction to grant the State’s motion to dismiss all charges, Judge Robins New reduced his conviction to third-degree homicide, so that he would be eligible for bail, and set bail at $50,000. Mr. Ogrod was released from prison that same day. Five days after Mr. Ogrod’s initial release, Judge Tucker, the homicide calendar judge, agreed to let prosecutors formally withdraw all charges, allowing him to be fully exonerated.
James Rollins, pro bono counsel from the law firm Nelson Mullins, said of Mr. Ogrod’s release, “It is a profound moment, filled with happiness and hope. Not only for Mr. Ogrod, but also for other innocent, wrongfully convicted individuals. There is hope that the system will learn from Mr. Ogrod’s case and there is hope that Barbara Jean Horn’s real killer will be brought to justice.”
Mr. Ogrod is the 169th death row prisoner to be exonerated in the modern death penalty era.