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Pennsylvania Man On Death Row Shows Signs of Coronavirus Days Before Hearing That Could Have Freed Him

Prosecutors say Walter Ogrod is ‘likely innocent’ of the charges that sent him to prison in 1996. Now, his attorney says, ‘every day a decision and/or hearing is delayed is another day that Mr. Ogrod’s health is at grave risk.’

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A Philadelphia man who has spent 23 years on death row and who prosecutors have determined is “likely innocent” is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and must be released from prison immediately so he can seek medical care, his attorneys say. 

Walter Ogrod, who has been on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1996, became ill with a fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing on March 11 and was taken to the infirmary at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix, his attorney, James Rollins, wrote in a motion filed Wednesday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Once in the infirmary, Ogrod’s fever reached 106 degrees. Eventually, his fever went down and he was returned to his cell on Monday where he was still coughing and having trouble breathing, court documents showed. Ogrod likened the feeling to  “breathing through a wet sponge,” according to the filing. He has not been tested for COVID-19, Rollins said. 

At the end of February, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office filed a motion stating that an internal investigation found that Ogrod, who was convicted of murdering a 4-year-old girl in 1988, is “likely innocent” and urged the court to vacate his conviction and death sentence. They cited false testimony, alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and junk scientific evidence to support their claim. 

A common pleas court judge was scheduled to consider that finding at a hearing on March 27. But Philadelphia’s courts were closed until at least April 1 in a bid to control the spread of COVID-19 and Ogrod’s court date was pushed back to June 5.  

Officials are permitting court proceedings to move ahead in cases of emergency for medical reasons. Rollins is now asking for a judge to rule on the motion to vacate his conviction without a hearing “as soon as possible” and if the judge does require a hearing, that it be done in a telephone conference.

“Every day a decision and/or hearing is delayed is another day that Mr. Ogrod remains on death row for a crime he did not commit,” wrote Rollins in the filing. “Every day a decision and/or hearing is delayed is another day that Mr. Ogrod’s health is at grave risk.” 

“Given the clear, compelling, and uncontested evidence that he is innocent, the Court must do everything in its power to mitigate the injustice and allow Mr. Ogrod to obtain medical treatment,” he added in a statement.  

As of Thursday afternoon, there were at least 47 reported cases of COVID-19 in Montgomery County, where Ogrod is being held.