Victim's Mother Calls For Immediate Release of 'Innocent' Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate with Coronavirus Symptoms

The mother of a four-year-old murder victim has called for the immediate release of the Pennsylvania death row inmate who was convicted of her daughter's killing.

Walter Ogrod has spent nearly 28 years behind bars for the 1988 slaying of Barbara Jean Horn. Earlier this year, 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 he is "likely innocent," citing unreliable scientific evidence, false testimony, and alleged misconduct by police and prosecutors.

But due to coronavirus pandemic, Ogrod's court hearing, originally set for March 27, was postponed until June 5. Last month, Ogrod's attorneys filed an emergency motion in a bid to secure his release as well as his transfer from state prison to a hospital after he began displaying the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Despite a court order stating Ogrod must be transported to an outside hospital for treatment and testing, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has refused to comply.

Now, Ogrod's attorneys have filed an amended motion, provided to Newsweek, citing additional developments since he became unwell that increase the urgency for an expedited hearing and ruling on the release. The motion is supported by Sharon Fahy, Horn's mother, who said in an affidavit that "there is no question in my mind that Mr. Ogrod is innocent and that he should be released from prison immediately."

SCI Phoenix
The State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

She added: "I am sad and angry to find out 32 years later that key evidence was withheld from me, my family and the courts. That evidence more than likely would have kept Mr. Ogrod off death row."

Fahy added that although she is angry that the person who killed her daughter is "likely walking free," keeping Ogrod behind bars serves no purpose. "I am angry that the person who took my daughter's life is likely walking free. My daughter is never coming home but I wanted justice for her, not simply a closed case with an innocent person in jail," she added.

"Keeping Mr. Ogrod in prison does nothing to accomplish my goal of bringing the person that killed my Barbara Jean to justice."

The fact that Ogrod is unwell and has symptoms of coronavirus means he should be released "as soon as possible," she added. "The possibility that an innocent man might die in jail would only serve to multiply the pain Barbara Jean's family has suffered."

They said the spread of COVID-19 at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, where Ogrod is housed, puts him at higher risk. Seven inmates and four employees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to the DOC website.

With courts closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the latest motion is seeking an expedited hearing via phone or video call at the "earliest possible date in April" to rule on Ogrod's release. It also cited a recent order by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that encourages lower courts to "take action necessary" to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons by identifying inmates for potential release.

Ogrod, 55, has been unwell since the second week of March, his attorneys said. He was taken to the prison infirmary with a fever, cough, and breathing difficulties on March 11 and placed in isolation. There, 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.

His attorneys told Newsweek his fever has now subsided, but he is still displaying some symptoms, including a cough and congestion.

"Presuming he does not already have COVID-19, his ill health puts him at risk if he were to contract it," the attorneys said in the motion. "Prison medical staff have told Mr. Ogrod that his compromised health puts him at risk."

Walter Ogrod
Walter Ogrod's attorneys filed a motion to secure his release after he developed symptoms for COVID-19. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Last month, the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division ordered the DOC to allow Ogrod to be transported to an outside hospital and tested for COVID-19. The failure to do so, the court said, "constitutes deliberate indifference to Mr. Ogrod's serious medical needs."

But James Rollins, one of Ogrod's attorneys, previously told Newsweek that the DOC was 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.

"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," he said.

A spokesperson for the DOC declined to provide details on Ogrod's case, citing confidentiality. "We cannot discuss an inmate's medical history because of confidentiality,' she said.

"In addition, due to the Disease Control and Prevention Act, we are not able to discuss/release specific information regarding the testing of inmates or staff for COVID-19."

This article has been updated with a comment from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

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