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March 31, 2020
By October 2019, Walter Ogrod had spent as many years of his life on death row as he has spent free. Ogrod was convicted in 1996 of killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn despite a lack of physical evidence or eyewitness identification to confirm his guilt. A team of attorneys, including Boston partner James Rollins, has been working on his post-conviction case for nearly 15 years.
February 28 brought the news that Ogrod had been waiting for ever since his conviction: The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office told a court that Ogrod was “likely innocent,” and that his conviction was a “gross miscarriage of justice” based on evidence that was “false, unreliable, and incomplete.” He should be released. The judge set a hearing for March 27, then rescheduled it for June. Coronavirus has ground regular court business to a virtual halt.
On March 11, when he could almost taste his freedom, Ogrod fell ill. “He described his breathing as like breathing through sponge,” Rollins told The Atlantic. His fever spiked to 103 degrees. He suffered bouts of coughing. These symptoms are typical of someone infected with the coronavirus. When the prosecutors and Ogrod’s attorneys learned of his illness, they quickly secured a court order instructing the prison to move him to a hospital so that he could be tested and treated for COVID-19. But the prison refused, arguing that two of its doctors said he needed no such test. “It took almost a week for him to actually get a decongestant to try to address his breathing,” Rollins said.
Patricia Cummings, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Philadelphia DA’s Office, is skeptical. “It’s your worst nightmare,” she says. Convicting an innocent man is tragic enough. Much worse would be if, after the state admits the mistake, the inmate were to die while the judicial system ambled to a conclusion. But the current situation is worse yet: Nothing was done to treat this potentially contagious prisoner, even though signs abounded that a viral “bomb” was about to explode, Cummings says. “It seemed like such a conscious indifference to not only Walter Ogrod’s well-being, but everybody in that prison.”
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