Walter Ogrod spent 23 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, but now he’s free after a judge vacated his conviction in the 1988 killing of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn.
Both the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the little girl’s mother supported overturning the case, citing evidence that he was innocent of the murder and sexual assault.
Common Pleas Judge Shelley Robins New ordered a new trial on Friday and reduced the charges so Ogrod could be released on bail, according to court documents.
He was freed that afternoon and was reunited with loved ones in the parking lot of a nearby convenience store.
“He is very happy, obviously, to be out. He is very pleased to be back with his family and friends,” said attorney Jim Rollins, who’s represented Ogrod for more than 15 years. “He’s very tired. It’s going to be a long road back for him.”
Ogrod, 55, is staying with family and Rollins said they had a barbecue to catch up.
Ogrod was arrested in 1992 – four years after his neighbor’s body was found in a television box. He signed a confession, but has always insisted that he was coerced by police detectives. He was convicted in 1996 after his first trial ended with a hung jury.
He spent 28 years in prison and most of that time was on death row.
During Friday’s hearing, which was held by video conference, Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood apologized to Ogrod, according to a statement from the District Attorney’s office.
“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,” Wood said, according to the statement. “Not only did this misconduct result in 28 years of your life being stolen, but you were also threatened with execution based on falsehoods.”
She also apologized to Barbara Jean’s family and to the city of Philadelphia for allowing the child’s killer to remain free for all these years.
“The errors made in this case made the streets less safe, and I fear the perpetrator in this case, having been left on the streets, may have brought harm to others,” she said, according to the statement.
District Attorney Larry Krasner told reporters that he expects that another judge will grant their request to dismiss the charges in the next few weeks. Krasner took office in 2018 and was not involved in the Ogrod’s prosecution.
The investigation by the D.A.’s Conviction Integrity Unit found that the second trial was “marred by unreliable scientific and medical evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, Brady violations, and false testimony” according to the statement.
Rollins said that the prosecutors in the case withheld evidence that could have helped Ogrod prove his innocence and allowed false evidence to be presented in court, including testimony from an unreliable informant.
Barbara Jean’s mother, Sharon Fahy, has been advocating for Ogrod’s release.
“I am happy that Walter Ogrod is going to be getting out of prison and starting his life,” she told reporters. “I believe firmly that he was wrongly convicted.”
She hopes to one day get justice for her daughter.
“We have been lied to when this first happened and we finally have the truth, which is hard, but that’s all we wanted was the truth,” she said. “We hope that we will be able to get the person who took Barbara jean away from us to pay for the crimes that he did and hope that he didn’t hurt anyone else.”
CNN’s Carma Hassan contributed to this story.