After two trials and more than two decades on death row, Walter Ogrod’s 1996 murder conviction for killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn in Northeast Philadelphia was overturned Friday after it was discovered his case was tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Ogrod, who has long maintained his innocence, was released from SCI Phoenix, a state prison in Montgomery County, around 1:15 p.m., according to a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Prisons.
“I am sorry it took 28 years for us to listen to what Barbara Jean was trying to tell us: that you are innocent, and that the words on your statement of confession came from Philadelphia Police detectives and not you,” Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood said during an emotional Zoom hearing Friday morning.
“Not only did this misconduct result in 28 years of your life being stolen, but you were threatened with execution based on falsehoods. On behalf of the District Attorney’s Office, I want to offer my sincerest apologies to you, your family, and friends,” Wood continued.
With the blessing of Horn’s mother, an investigation launched by the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit found that prosecutors assigned to Ogrod’s case actively concealed evidence, violating Ogrod’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
For example, jurors were told that Horn died after Ogrod, now 55, struck her in the head with a weighted bar. However, prosecutors said their predecessors knew she likely died from asphyxia, not blows to her head.
The unit also found the jury was not told that the detectives assigned to the case — Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell — had a history of using abusive and coercive interrogation tactics to elicit confessions, which were proven to be false or unreliable in at least four other cases.
Prosecutors now believe Devlin and Worrell coerced Ogrod into making a false confession after at least eight hours of interrogating him.
Additionally, prosecutors at the time did not disclose that a jailhouse informant who testified against Ogrod had persistent and severe mental health problems that compromised his ability to accurately recount information.
“The brutal injustice of Walter Ogrod’s case is impossibly tragic. This innocent man and his family lost almost thirty years that they should have spent together. Instead, that irreplaceable time together is gone, lost to a system that keeps making the same mistakes,” said James Rollins, one of Ogrod’s defense attorneys, in a statement.
Ogrod is out of prison, but Common Pleas Judge Shelley Robins New said Friday she did not have the authority to completely toss out his case. Instead, she ordered a new trial and, after a request from prosecutors, agreed do downgrade the charges from first- to third-degree murder, an offense that permits defendants to be released on bail.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner wants the charges against Ogrod to be dropped. His office has filed a motion requesting that Ogrod not be retried after concluding that is “likely innocent.”
“We fully expect that another judge with jurisdiction to dismiss the case will grant our request for dismissal in the next few weeks,” said Krasner during a news conference.
Horn was killed in July 1988. Her body was later found in a plastic bag stuffed inside a cardboard television box placed on the curb in front of her home.
In 1996, a jury convicted Ogrod of first-degree murder and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. His first trial was declared a mistrial after a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.
“We had been lied to when this first happened and we finally have the truth,” said Sharon Fahy, Horn’s mother. “We hope that we will be able to get the person who took Barbara Jean away from us.”
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