In the virtual courtroom of Philadelphia Judge Shelley Robins New, assistant district attorney Carrie Wood apologized to 56-year-old Walter Ogrod, who has spent a quarter-century on death row for the murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn.
The prosecutor wept.
“I’m sorry it took 28 years for us to listen to what Barbara Jean was trying to tell us,” she said to Ogrod. “That you are innocent, and that the words on your statement of confession came from Philadelphia police detectives and not you.”
In March, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office concluded Ogrod was “likely innocent” and suffered a “gross miscarriage of justice.” Wood appeared at Friday’s hearing on behalf of the commonwealth to ask Robins New to vacate Ogrod’s convictions and death sentence.
The hearing went forward as scheduled, even as the courts in Philadelphia were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests over police brutality and systemic racism. Ogrod, appearing on video in a mask and a red prison jumpsuit from State Correctional Institution Phoenix, said little.
A jury convicted Ogrod of murder and attempted sexual assault in 1996, based largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and on a confession signed by Ogrod but written by a detective. Prosecutors later determined that the informant lied and that Ogrod’s confession was false, according to court filings. New DNA testing found no connection between Ogrod and Barbara Jean’s murder, the district attorney’s office said.
After apologizing to Ogrod, Wood turned to Sharon Fahy, Barbara Jean’s mother, who herself has advocated for Ogrod’s release.
“This office has not told you the truth about what happened to your little girl for so many years,” she said. Her voice began to shake again.
“My apologies, your honor,” she said.
“Take your time,” Robins New responded.
After gathering her composure, Wood apologized to the city of Philadelphia for the danger a wrongful conviction may have brought to its residents.
“The errors made in this case made the streets less safe,” she said. “And I fear the perpetrator in this case, having been left on the streets, may have brought harm to others.”
She concluded by asking the court to vacate Ogrod’s convictions and death sentence. Robins New granted the motion.
After nearly 30 years, Ogrod was nearly free.
The district attorney’s office announced its intent to drop the charges against Ogrod, though Robins New said that it was not within her jurisdiction to grant such a motion. But she agreed to the prosecutor’s request to reduce the charge against Ogrod to third-degree murder, making him eligible to be released on bail.
The district attorney’s office, Ogrod’s defense team, and the prison had already been in communication in the days leading up to the hearing to make a plan for his release. Two hours after the hearing, Ogrod walked out of prison.
“He is pleased, would be an understatement, to be released,” said his attorney, Jim Rollins. Rollins said Ogrod isn’t ready to speak publicly about his ordeal. “He is very tired. He is very tired.”
Ogrod is set to appear before a judge in the court’s homicide division in the coming weeks. Both sides expect the judge to approve the state’s motion to decline to prosecute the case.
Thomas Lowenstein, who has spent 19 years covering Ogrod’s case and wrote a book about it, said he had to step away from his computer during the hearing to take control of his emotions. He came back after Ogrod emailed him asking, “Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“To sit in a room and watch the DA and the victim’s mother ask for justice in those kinds of eloquent terms, it’s a new day indeed,” said Lowenstein, a former policy director and investigator at Innocence Project New Orleans. Still, the hearing brought to his mind a list of the wrongfully convicted who are still waiting for justice.
“I can’t think about Walter today without thinking of all the other guys we know are innocent,” he said.