Pennsylvania Dept. Of Corrections Refuses Coronavirus Test for Death Row Inmate Despite Court Order, Attorneys Say

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is refusing to comply with a court order stating a death row inmate with coronavirus symptoms must be transported to an outside hospital for testing and treatment, his attorneys have claimed.

Walter Ogrod's attorneys filed an emergency motion last week to secure his release and transfer from state prison to a hospital after he developed a high fever, cough, and had difficulties breathing. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, which recently determined Ogrod is "likely innocent," also filed an emergency motion.

Over the weekend, the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division responded to the motions, ordering the DOC to allow Ogrod, who is housed at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, to be transported to an outside hospital and tested for COVID-19.

But James Rollins, one of Ogrod's attorneys, told Newsweek that the DOC is refusing to comply with the order, arguing that the court lacks the jurisdiction to order the testing and citing unnamed prison doctors as saying Ogrod does not need to be tested.

"We are deeply troubled by the Department of Corrections' refusal to allow Mr. Ogrod to be tested or otherwise to test Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19, particularly on a legal technicality," he said.

Walter Ogrod
Walter Ogrod has developed serious symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but hasn't received a test or adequate medical care, his attorneys said. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

"There is no legal or moral position that can support a failure to test Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19. Given the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, including limited access to courts across the Commonwealth, the Court's order was a proper exercise of the Court's emergency authority."

He added: "Mr. Ogrod's situation poses a threat not only to his own health, but to the health of other inmates, guards and staff at SCI-Phoenix."

A DOC spokeswoman did not confirm to Newsweek whether or not Ogrod has been tested for coronavirus or transported to hospital. But the spokeswoman said: "We have a testing infrastructure in place and we are following the COVID-19 CDC guidelines. We are confident that any inmate who meets the criteria will be tested."

Ogrod, 55, was taken to the prison infirmary with a fever, cough, and breathing difficulties on March 11 and placed in isolation, according to the emergency motion filed by his attorney.

While in isolation, his fever spiked to 106 degrees, but days later, he was returned to his cell with his fever "seemingly under control," although he was still coughing and having difficulties breathing, the motion said.

Last Tuesday, a week after he first reported symptoms, a doctor gave Ogrod clearance to receive a decongestant for his respiratory issues, the motion added. But it said he has not received the necessary medical treatment despite being in a high-risk category due to his age and medical conditions.

The court order issued by the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, provided to Newsweek, said Dr. Michael Stephen, of the Jane and Leonard Korman Respiratory Institute at Jefferson Hospital, recommended that Ogrod be immediately tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and placed in isolation until his test returns. The failure to do so, the court said, "constitutes deliberate indifference to Mr. Ogrod's serious medical needs."

The doctor stated that Ogrod "is a risk to others in the populations, and may need further care if he tested positive."

"The failure to test and treat Mr. Ogrod for COVID-19 constitutes deliberate indifference to Mr. Ogrod's serious medical needs and a failure to provide Mr. Ogrod with healthcare services of a quality acceptable within prudent professional standards in violation of Mr. Ogrod's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and Pennsylvania Constitutional Right to be free from cruel punishments," the order added.

Ogrod has spent almost 28 years behind bars for the 1988 murder of four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn. But last month, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office filed a request for his conviction and death sentence to be vacated after determining that Ogrod is "likely innocent," citing unreliable scientific evidence, false testimony, and alleged misconduct by police and prosecutors.

Last week, Ogrod's attorneys learned the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas would not grant their request for a prompt hearing. His next court date, which had been set for March 27, has been postponed until June 5.

Courts in Philadelphia have been closed until April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although the First Judicial District has permitted emergency proceedings for medical reasons. But Rollins has called for an expedited ruling to secure Ogrod's release, which he says is now even more urgent in light of his symptoms.

"We continue to pursue Mr. Ogrod's release after nearly three decades on Pennsylvania's death row for a crime he did not commit," Rollins added.

"His release would also allow for his immediate testing in the community for COVID-19. To make an innocent man remain even one extra day on death row is unjust. To leave him on death row showing symptoms of COVID-19 without adequate medical treatment would be unconscionable."

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before; during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • If you feel unwell (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and call local health authorities in advance.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing. Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
    Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.