To win exoneration, it wasn’t enough for the DA to declare innocence. The judge had to agree, or Walter wasn’t going anywhere.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin bring us to Philadelphia for the story of Walter Ogrod. Walter was sent to death row by an old-school Philly justice system that was better known for injustice. He spent decades in prison for a murder he didn't commit -- until a new wave of reform-minded prosecutors found the truth behind Walter's false confession.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
A portion of this podcast series’ proceeds will be donated to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. To donate, learn more, or get involved, go to http://www.centeronwrongfulconvictions.org/
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider Today, we'll bring you to Philadelphia for the story of Walter Ogrod. Walter was sent to death row, for a murder he didn't commit, by an old-school Philly justice system that was better known for injustice. Walter spent decades in prison until a new wave of reform-minded prosecutors went looking for the truth behind his conviction. Walter's story gives Steve and me hope that real reform is really possible.
Steve Drizin So I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and a few years ago, Laura and I took a trip there for work. I'm very proud of Philadelphia, and I like to show off the city. And there was this place that I had to take Laura to. It's not Constitution Hall...
Laura Nirider OK, not the Liberty Bell...
Steve Drizin It's the Eastern State Penitentiary.
Laura Nirider So you drive me to downtown Philly, and there's this rundown relic of a prison that's crumbling; it's covered in cobwebs. It's almost like a haunted house in the middle of downtown Philadelphia. It's not used any longer.
Steve Drizin It was built in 1829!
Laura Nirider But it's been preserved there as this incredible monument against mass incarceration.
Steve Drizin It's my favorite place to go because it fits the city's personality and history so well. This is a city with an unbelievable history of injustice, mass incarceration, and corruption within the criminal justice system. And this history of injustice, it peaked when I was a child in the 60s and 1970s. This was the time when Frank Rizzo was the police chief, and then he was the mayor. He controlled the city, and he sent out a message that when police officers coerced confessions, he had their backs.
Laura Nirider You know, just like Eastern State Penitentiary, Frank Rizzo has become the symbol for the heaviest of hands in the criminal justice system, for the way it can just come down on the backs of people, especially people without power. And that's exactly what we see in today's story, the story of Walter Ogrod. Today's story starts in Northeast Philadelphia. It's a working-class part of Philly. The side streets are lined with bungalows and the main drags are lined with discount big-box stores. The Northeast is an outlying area, pretty far from downtown where the courthouses and police department are found. It even tried to secede once from the rest of the city. But when it comes to criminal justice, the Northeast is Philadelphia through and through. It's a full participant in the city's policing machine. When our story starts in 1988, that machine was notoriously harsh; and, way too often, couldn't deliver real justice. It's July 1988, and on one of Northeast Philly's side streets lived the family of a little girl, four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn. On the 12th of July, Barbara Jean went missing, sometime around 2:00 that afternoon. By 5:30, a neighbor peeked inside a discarded television box that was sitting outside on a curb next to some trash cans. Inside the box was Barbara Jean, and she was dead. She was unclothed, her hair was wet, and she'd been struck five times on the head. It was a horrendous crime. Police swarmed the block and found four eyewitnesses who'd seen a man earlier that afternoon dragging a cardboard box down the sidewalk. The eyewitnesses all gave roughly the same description. They'd seen a man with brown hair, around 30 years old, somewhere between five-six and five-nine, with a medium build. It was a pretty good description, but police weren't able to generate any real leads. After several months, Barbara Jean's murder was featured on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, and a police tip line was set up. Close to a thousand tips were phoned in, but police still couldn't solve the case. After almost four years, in early 1992, the case was reassigned to a new group of Philly detectives. And these new cops seemed to have no difficulty picking a suspect: a 23-year-old man named Walter Ogrod.
Speaker Walter was a round-shoulders, thick-glasses kind of guy who lived across the street from Barbara Jean's family. He was black-haired, six foot one, 220 pounds; not exactly the short, slim man who'd been seen dragging that box. Walter had no criminal record at all, but he did have a record of profound learning disabilities. Over the years, professionals who evaluated him used words like "extreme dependency" and "social inadequacy." His teachers said that Walter was no troublemaker; he'd only ever get in trouble because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. For Walter Ogrod, the wrong place at the wrong time was a Philadelphia interrogation room on April 5, 1992. That morning, police called Walter's house and left a message asking him to come in for questioning about Barbara Jean. He wasn't a suspect, they said; he was an "informational witness."
Steve Drizin This happens all the time. But this is a ruse. There's already a plan afoot. Police officers don't view that person as a witness. They view that person as a suspect. It's a ruse because it creates a context in which the confession is going to be viewed as voluntary. "He drove down to the police station on his own accord." "We told him that the door is open, and he can leave at any time that he wants." All of these tactics we see over and over again. And oftentimes it's the first step down the road to a false confession.
Laura Nirider Walter was happy to help. First chance he got, at about 1:30 that afternoon, Walter drove himself to the Philadelphia Police Administration Building. It's an imposing, severe 1960s-era complex that Philadelphians call "The Roundhouse."
Steve Drizin The confession was one of police officers' main tools to solve cases that were still open.
Laura Nirider They were experts in breaking people, and the Roundhouse is where the breaking happened.
Steve Drizin It's the seat of police power in the city.
Laura Nirider Walter showed up to the Roundhouse ready to cooperate, but wiped out. He had just finished an 18-hour shift driving a bakery truck around a 300-mile delivery route. And he'd been awake for 12 hours before that.
Steve Drizin He had been up for like 30 hours; he was exhausted. He came into the interrogation room expecting to be providing information that was helpful to the police, and he got hit with an avalanche.
Laura Nirider At the Roundhouse, police put Walter into a back room where the table and chairs were bolted to the floor. That's where he'd face 14 hours of interrogation.
Steve Drizin If you go without sleep for some period of time, it clouds your ability to make rational decisions and leads people to agree to things that they otherwise would never agree to. And Walter had cognitive disabilities, too. So these twin issues made him an easy mark.
Laura Nirider Now, the interrogation wasn't recorded, so we have no objective record of what happened in the room, but Walter has given a very detailed account of the interrogation. So here we go. According to Walter, police started by asking where he'd been four years ago on the day Barbara Jean disappeared. He went to work, he said. After he got home, he remembered seeing Barbara Jean's stepfather going door to door, looking for her. But these answers didn't seem to satisfy the police. Walter started to feel strange: Why were the cops so interested in him? He stood up, tried to leave the room, but he says his interrogators blocked the door. The police handcuffed Walter to the chair and started showing him photos of Barbara Jean's dead body in the cardboard box. "We think you did this," they said. Walter says police told him witnesses had identified him as the perpetrator, even though no one actually had. And when Walter insisted he was innocent, the police told him he must be blocking memories of the murder. They wrote down a description of how they thought Walter had committed the crime. "If you don't sign this confession," they said, "we're going to take you downstairs, and we're going to put you in a cell with a bunch of Black people. We're going to tell them you killed a bunch of black children, and then we're going to see what happens." Except, of course, they didn't use the word Black.
Steve Drizin This is the old-school police department; the department built by Frank Rizzo, who was an unabashed racist. I mean, when he ran for mayor, he would hand out buttons to his supporters that said "Vote White." It's no surprise in this context that Walter Ogrod's interrogation was saturated with racism.
Laura Nirider By 3:30 in the morning, Walter had had enough. He signed each page of a 16-page confession, all of which had been written out by the police. According to the confession, Walter lured Barbara Jean into his basement where he tried to molest her. When she resisted, he flew into a rage and hit her on the head with a two-foot-long metal bar from his weight set. He rinsed off her body, hid her clothes in a crawl space and put her in the cardboard box. It was a brutal statement, enough to get Walter booked into jail and charged with murder. But by 7:00 a.m., Walter was recanting. He called an attorney from jail, totally distraught, and said that police were telling him that he'd killed a little girl and had a mental block about it. Walter said he didn't do it. When the lawyer asked why he hadn't called earlier, Walter explained that he had requested a lawyer during the interrogation, but the police had said they'd have to put him in jail until the lawyer came; and in the meantime, the inmates would kill him. That was more than enough to dissuade Walter.
Steve Drizin You might be asking yourself: How can they do that? Aren't they supposed to stop when a suspect asks for the right to counsel? And the answer to that question is yes. That's the one bright line rule of interrogation. Suspect asks for a lawyer; police officers shut up until a lawyer comes into the room. But they could get away with it because there's no recording of this transaction. Police officers are going to say, "He never asked for a lawyer." And in Philadelphia, in a court of law, during this time, nobody's going to believe Walter Ogrod.
Laura Nirider Walter's trial for first-degree murder began in October 1993. The only evidence against him was his confession, and there was plenty of reason to disbelieve it. The confession claimed that Walter had hidden Barbara Jean's clothes in his crawl space, but Walter's defense pointed out that no clothes had been found there. A psychiatrist testified about Walter's limitations and said the confession wasn't written in Walter's style of speaking. And when Walter took the stand to proclaim his own innocence, it was pretty clear the confession was written in words he'd never use. On November 4, 1993, the jury announced its verdict: not guilty.
Steve Drizin The jury acquitted Walter Ogrod.
Laura Nirider Let's say that one more time. The jury found Walter not guilty. I mean, we almost never see this in confession cases.
Steve Drizin This is a rare event. It's like a total eclipse of the sun.
Laura Nirider For a moment, it looked like Walter was going home. But as soon as the acquittal was announced, one juror changed everything. He stood up and announced, "I do not agree with the verdict." The courtroom erupted, and the judge declared a mistrial. In the end, the jury had hung: 11 in favor of acquittal, one in favor of conviction. After the trial, one of the 11 jurors who believed in Walter's innocence told the media that he saw "gaping holes" in the prosecution's case. "I didn't put much stock in the confession," he said. "I wanted to see evidence." Walter was retried in 1996; and this time, the prosecutors filled the holes in their case. They had recruited a notorious jailhouse snitch: a man named John Hall, who was locked up in the same jail as Walter. Hall had a miles-long track record of claiming to overhear other inmates confess to their crimes. In at least 12 different homicide cases, he told the authorities about these supposed confessions, in exchange for benefits like reductions in his sentence. For his apparently priestlike ability to hear confessions, Hall was nicknamed "The Monsignor."
Steve Drizin He would read newspaper articles about these stories and then claim that this suspect confessed to him. And he did it because he was getting something in return. He would get a cut in his sentence. He was a con man. He was a liar. And the fact that prosecutors were willing to use this man over and over again speaks volumes about this unholy alliance between police officers and prosecutors in Philadelphia.
Laura Nirider This partnership with such a prolific snitch had helped the Philly DA's office win a steady stream of convictions. But by the time of Walter Ogrod's second trial, the Monsignor had accumulated such a reputation that even prosecutors realized he had no credibility left.
Steve Drizin The baggage around John Hall was so heavy that the prosecutors couldn't use him in this case. So what did Hall do? Hall trained another inmate in the details of Walter's story and used that inmate to be the snitch.
Laura Nirider He wasn't the only "priest" there to take confessions.
Steve Drizin That's right. He turned the jail and prison system in Pennsylvania into a "seminary."
Laura Nirider For Walter's second trial, prosecutors got around their usual star witness's credibility problem by calling a different inmate to testify. Jay Wolchansky was an acolyte of John Hall, and Jay was all too happy to take the Monsignor's place on the witness stand. At trial, Jay testified that Walter had confessed to him in jail. For good measure, Jay added a story about Walter describing what happened when his own mom asked if he'd killed Barbara Jean. According to Jay, Walter told his mom, "Damn right I did, and if you know what's best for you, you'll keep quiet." Believe it or not, this was enough. Based on Jay's snitch testimony and on the confession, Walter Ogrod was convicted of the murder of Barbara Jean Horn on October 8, 1996. The next day, it took this jury less than 90 minutes to sentence Walter Ogrod to death. And off Walter went to death row. Walter's case went through years of appeals, to no avail. Eventually, a team of lawyers from the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, along with attorneys from a local law firm, began to reinvestigate Walter's case. In 2011, they filed a post-conviction petition, with some blockbuster pieces of evidence attached. First, the petition took down the snitches. It included an affidavit from the Monsignor himself, John Hall, who said that his buddy Jay Wolchansky never really talked to Walter in any detail at all. Instead, the Monsignor had told Jay what to say about Walter.
Steve Drizin The Monsignor finally had his come-to-Jesus moment. He admitted that he had lied about Walter Ogrod.
Laura Nirider After the Monsignor died, his widow also submitted an affidavit spilling details about the snitch scheme. Turns out she was an accomplice in fabricating the Monsignor's confessions. It was her newspaper research that served as the basis for his stories. But when it came to Walter's case, she couldn't find much information in the papers. So she wrote Walter a letter pretending to be a stripper, asking for information about his case. Walter, of course, never confessed anything to her. The story of his guilt was all made up. As for Walter's confession, the lawyers pointed out that Barbara Jean didn't have the kind of skull fracture as you'd expect, if she had actually been hit over the head with a weight bar. The confession just didn't match the facts of the case. And it seemed there was a reason for that. The same officer who interrogated Walter had been implicated in at least two other false confession cases. One involved a man who confessed to raping a 77-year-old woman, and another involved a man who confessed to killing a local businessman. For closing those cases, the Philly police gave this officer the nickname "Detective Perfect." Thankfully, both of these wrongfully convicted men were later exonerated, and Detective Perfect's record was deservedly tarnished.
Steve Drizin The detective who took Walter Ogrod's confession was a golden boy in the Philadelphia Police Department, and he claimed to have a 95 percent success rate in getting confessions to close cases.
Laura Nirider There's a great quote from a journalist who followed this case very closely, a man named Tom Lowenstein, who said, you know, having a 95 percent clearance rate for a homicide detective is kind of like Mark McGuire hitting 75 home runs. You've got to ask: Did he do it honestly?
Steve Drizin Exactly. When you see detectives claiming to have that high of a confession rate, you know, there's a lot of false confessions in that mix.
Laura Nirider The post-conviction lawyers had presented a pretty compelling case for Walter's innocence. Nonetheless, seven years later, in 2017, the court still had not issued a ruling. But while Walter's case was stalled, Philadelphia began to change. In 2017, the people of Philadelphia elected a new, unlikely District Attorney: Larry Krasner. Larry was a civil rights lawyer who made his name suing the Philadelphia police for misconduct. He was elected on a wave of neighborhood activism led by Philadelphians of color, who were angry at the authorities for years of abuse and neglect. Larry Krasner quickly came to define a new vision of what it meant to be a prosecutor. He did not believe in the death penalty. He did not believe in knee-jerk mass incarceration. And he did not believe in keeping innocent men and women in prison. Here's our friend Carrie Wood, who works in the part of Larry Krasner's office dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. Before she joined his office, she was a wrongful conviction lawyer, like us, who worked at the Ohio Innocence Project.
Carrie Wood Larry Krasner was really thinking about the system differently and wanting to return to a role of truth-seeker and representing the whole community, not just a particular swath of it. That was really something that made me change my mind about wanting to work in a DA's office.
Laura Nirider Carrie has crossed over to the prosecution side, with the goal of changing it. And we're pretty proud of her.
Carrie Wood Unfortunately, one of the biggest roadblocks to getting justice were often prosecutors' offices. I thought that coming to a DA's office, I might actually be able to make a difference, to right past wrongs, and to use those past wrongs to point to practices that needed to change.
Laura Nirider After Carrie began working in the Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit, one of the first cases assigned to her was Walter Ogrod.
Carrie Wood Walter's attorneys had pointed out that Barbara Jean Horn didn't have any skull fractures. And Walter's initial confession was that he had hit her over the head with a large weight bar. That was certainly something that sounded worth investing.
Laura Nirider Carrie and her colleagues dove into Walter's case, and what they found was revealing.
Carrie Wood We began to identify documents that looked like they had not been turned over to defense counsel at the time of the original trial. One of the things that really jumped out at me was notes from the prosecutor about what the actual true cause of death was. In those notes, it says Barbara Jean Horn had not died from a blow to the head. The most likely scenario was that she had been suffocated. So that particular note in the file, once we came across it, was a pretty big deal.
Laura Nirider The State had known all along that Walter's confession, which didn't mention smothering once, was not true, even as it sought to execute him. In fact, a new review of the autopsy revealed that whatever did strike Barbara Jean in the head was lightweight and thin in profile. It definitely wasn't the heavy weight bar that Walter's confession described. That was enough for Carrie and the Conviction Integrity Unit to do DNA testing on the liquid that the morgue had used to wash Barbara Jean's body.
Carrie Wood What else can Barbara Jean tell me about what happened to her that maybe was missed at the time?
Laura Nirider The result? They found a full male DNA profile. That profile didn't match anyone in the state or national DNA databases. But one thing was clear: The DNA definitely did not belong to Walter Ogrod. And unlike in so many of the stories we tell on this podcast, these prosecutors understood what a DNA exclusion like this meant. It was undeniable proof that Walter had been wrongfully convicted. On February 28, 2020, Carrie and her team filed a motion to throw out Walter's conviction. "The evidence used to convict him," she wrote, "was false, unreliable and incomplete." Instead, she stated, "Walter Ogrod was very likely innocent.". For Walter to win exoneration and leave death row, though, it wasn't enough for the DA's office to declare him innocent. The judge had to agree to exonerate him, or Walter wasn't going anywhere. This judge was a former prosecutor herself. She tried homicide cases alongside another prosecutor who later became the judge who presided over Walter's conviction. These two judges epitomized Philadelphia's old guard, both its harshness and its cronyism. So when the office of Larry Krasner, that new reformer DA, declared Walter Ogrod innocent, well, the case encountered some major resistance.
Carrie Wood Once we had concluded our investigation, we were originally scheduled to have a hearing in front of the judge; but unfortunately, COVID happened.
Laura Nirider COVID-19 hit Pennsylvania only a few weeks after prosecutors asked the court to throw out Walter's conviction. Court operations slowed way down. The judge had scheduled a March 27th hearing on Walter's case, but halfway through March, she canceled it. She was "too busy," her clerk informed Walter's lawyers, and Walter's case was "no more important" than any other.
Steve Drizin It is more important than any other! This is a case where the district attorney is saying, "We believe this man is innocent." That almost never happens. She put Walter's life at risk. Prisons are a petri dish for this virus. COVID should have been a reason for fast-tracking this is, not an excuse for delaying it.
Laura Nirider But while the judge was delaying the hearing, Walter Ogrod, then 55 years old, was falling ill. According to his lawyers, Walter spiked a 103 degree temperature and developed breathing problems that made him feel like he was inhaling through a wet sponge. In mid-March, Walter was isolated in his cell and left to battle his symptoms alone.
Carrie Wood The prison where Walter was was a huge hot spot for COVID. You become concerned that, well, you know, is this COVID? Will he die in prison before he is able to be exonerated?
Laura Nirider Walter's lawyers were terrified that he wouldn't live to see freedom. On March 19th, they filed an emergency request to get him tested for COVID and treated at an outside hospital. The DA agreed, but the judge again delayed ruling for days.
Steve Drizin This is not the time for a power struggle. Give the guy the fucking test. Oh, yeah, there are other people who want to be tested, too, but nobody else has been locked up for two decades or more for a crime they didn't commit.
Laura Nirider Walter ended up fighting whatever virus he had in his cell, alone. After many days of sickness, he recovered. Walter's health crisis had passed. But what about his freedom? Walter's lawyers kept pressing. They've begged the judge for 10 minutes of her time. "Got to wait until June," was the reply. Finally, June 5th rolled around. In true 2020 fashion, the court hearing on Walter's release unfolded virtually on Zoom. Walter appeared in orange prison clothing and a disposable face mask. At the hearing, prosecutor Carrie Wood tearfully apologized both to Barbara Jean's mother, Sharon Fahy, and to Walter.
Carrie Wood I spent a lot of time with Sharon and saw the huge impact that this case had on her life, for decades, and worked really hard to see if I could answer the questions for her and then came up short. One of the hardest things for me to do was to tell her that I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to find the person that did that to her little girl and that it was the mistakes of this office that resulted in that. You know, you can't begin to fix anything until you identify or admit that you have a problem. You apologize for it, and you begin to work to make things better.
Laura Nirider And Carrie also had something to say to Walter, something so beautiful that I'm going to read it to you now. "I am sorry it took 28 years for us to listen to what Barbara Jean was trying to tell us: that you are innocent and that the words on your statement of confession came from Philadelphia police detectives and not you. Not only did this misconduct result in 28 years of your life being stolen, but you were also threatened with execution based on falsehoods."
Carrie Wood Having worked on a number of cases that have resulted in exonerations, even before I came to the office, one of the things that the innocent person had often commented on was, did they ever apologize? And most often the answer was no. Someone who's innocent, it's the thing they most often wanted to hear. I did a lot of work to try to rectify what I could, but for the things that I couldn't fix that had caused harm? Of course, you apologize.
Laura Nirider It was finally enough. After months of delay, the judge granted the DA's motion to throw out Walter's conviction and death sentence. Walter Ogrod walked out of prison that same day, after spending almost three decades behind bars.
Carrie Wood You know, wrongful convictions don't make people safer. You just slowly try to push forward and improve things so that more wrongful convictions, like Mr. Ogrod's, don't happen. It's really hard for people to admit mistakes. The hope is that more folks will be willing to step up and say, I got it wrong. What I tend to focus on is, can I identify a problem and how can I fix it? What can I do to fix this for Mr. Ogrod? And then what can we do to make it better for the citizens of Philadelphia? That's why I do the work that I do. That's why I work in the CIU.
Steve Drizin The truth is the single most important thing a prosecutor needs to be concerned with; because without truth, there can be no justice.
Laura Nirider It takes a lot of courage to face the truth, especially when that means someone with power has to admit they made a mistake.
Steve Drizin These are the prosecutors that bring nobility to the profession. These are the prosecutors that place seeking justice ahead of preserving convictions. You know, the ghost of Frank Rizzo still haunts the city of Philadelphia.
Laura Nirider There was a statue of Frank Rizzo erected as a monument to the city's law enforcement.
Steve Drizin That statue was a symbol of injustice. It became a rallying point for all of the activists seeking change to policing in Philadelphia. And finally, the mayor of Philadelphia, using a crane, lifted it from its moorings and removed Rizzo's statue.
Laura Nirider That monument to the old unjust ways of doing things came down just a few days before Walter Ogrod walked out of prison.
Steve Drizin To me, it's the sort of final fitting end to a kind of policing and a kind of law enforcement that plagued Philadelphia for years. It's a sign that change is here now and hopefully that it will endure.
Laura Nirider Out with the old. In with the new. And that's the story of Walter Ogrod. Next week, we'll tell you about a California man named Ricky Davis, who came home from a party to find his housemate had been murdered. The case went cold until 14 years later, when detectives coerced Ricky's ex-girlfriend into implicating him. Police thought they'd found the killer, but it took 19 more years for this cold case to finally be solved right. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.