After spending 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, a Pennsylvania man walked free on Friday, June 5, the Guardian reports.
Walter Ogrod, now 55, was accused of murdering his 4-year-old neighbor, Barbara Jean Horn, in July 1988. Ogrod, who is on the autism spectrum, confessed to the murder in 1992, but his defense attorney argued in court that his confession was coerced. After his case attracted national attention in 2018 due to a CNN report, the state attorney general included Ogrod's case in a review of several. In the end, newly obtained DNA evidence proved conclusively that Ogrod was not the perpetrator.
A Weak Body of Evidence?
Looking at the circumstances that led to Ogrod's conviction, by today's standards it seems a weak case at best, despite his alleged confession. First of all, his disability could easily be attributed to a false confession under duress from the police. Secondly, Ogrod's description of the “murder” didn't match the evidence. (The victim was asphyxiated; Ogrod claimed to have beaten her with a metal rod.) Thirdly, five eyewitnesses who saw the alleged perpetrator place the box containing her body on the street described someone who didn't fit Ogrod's description. The evidence was so conflicting that the first trial resulted in a mistrial, with 11 of the 12 jurors voting to acquit
So how did Ogrod end up on death row? According to the records, the turning point was “jailhouse hearsay,” which is effectively the third-hand account of an inmate who claimed Ogrod confessed. In other words, the courts sentenced an autistic man to death on the testimony of a convicted, jailed criminal who never saw the crime took place.
The Turning Point
The chain of events leading to the overturning of Ogrod's conviction came through a combination of public awareness and modern science. In 2018, the CNN series Death Row Stories ran an episode called “Snitch Work” which highlighted Ogrid's story and exposed a jailhouse “snitch network” in the Pennsylvania correctional system. Not long after, Pennsylvania district attorney Larry Krasner announced the case was under review, along with a set of other convictions. As part of the review, the forensic evidence underwent DNA lab testing procedures that were not widely used during the time of Ogrod's arrest. The results, announced in January, demonstrated conclusively that Ogrod was not the killer. After a delay of several months due to the pandemic, the motion to overturn the conviction was granted.
Ogrod's case underscores two important truths: First, the justice system does not always work as designed, and the rights of the accused get ignored more often than people care to admit. Second, even a conviction doesn't have to be the final word, especially if material evidence was ignored or improperly handled in the course of the trial. Both truths demonstrate the importance of having a skilled Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney representing your interests—and protecting your rights under the law—if you are accused of a crime.
Joseph Lento has spent many years passionately defending the rights of his clients in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania courts. If you need legal representation in a criminal case, call 888-535-3686 or contact us online for a consultation.