A death row inmate, a murder victim's son, and a 16-year quest for justice

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Police mug shot of Walter Ogrod taken April 6, 1992

This wasn’t the story that Tom Lowenstein had bargained for. The year was 2003 and the crusading writer had travelled to a prison in the remote southwestern corner of Pennsylvania to interview a death-row inmate named Walter Ogrod for what he thought was going to be a book about America’s damaging obsession with the death penalty.

He’d initially shrugged off Ogrod’s letters insisting that he was innocent, that he had nothing to do with the horrific slaying of a 4-year-old girl – found naked inside a TV box – that had roiled a rowhouse street in Northeast Philadelphia in 1988. That’s just what any murder convict was going to say, right?

But now as Lowenstein sat just across a Plexiglass barrier from Ogrod at Pennsylvania’s state prison in rural Greene County and listened to Ogrod’s blank recounting of his ordeal in the sinkhole of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, he realized that the then-36-year-old Ogrod was “off” -- developmentally disabled. In no way, the now-New-Orleans-based journalist realized, did the murder convict sound anything like the character who’d signed an emotional confession after a relentless 14-hour police interrogation.

The death-penalty idea was scrapped. What emerged that day was a writer’s obsessive, 16-years-and-counting quest to show that Philadelphia police and prosecutors had used a false confession and the beyond-dubious involvement of a notorious and later-discredited jailhouse snitch to solve a high-profile murder by locking up an innocent man -- a man who now has spent nearly half his life behind bars.

The 348-page product of that journey, The Trials of Walter Ogrod, is out this week from Chicago Review Press. It’s a remarkable book that is hard to put down as it evolves from a grim true-crime saga -- drenched in a 1980s Philly of crank-fueled bikers and claustrophobic crime-fearing streets -- to Ogrod’s sudden entrapment in a maze of suffocating injustice that updates the term “Kafkaesque” for a new millennium.

The timing for Lowenstein’s tome couldn’t be better – just as eight candidates jockey to replace disgraced Philadelphia DA Seth Williams and debate what must be done to repair the city’s deeply flawed criminal-justice regime.  The fact that Williams’ lieutenants not only continue to defend Ogrod’s deeply flawed conviction but are blocking DNA tests that could prove Ogrod’s innocence or guilt is Exhibit A in that system’s indictment.

On the surface, the 47-year-old Lowenstein might be the last person you’d expect to tell this story -- and not just because he’s never lived one day in Philadelphia. His own father was murdered when Lowenstein was just 10, gunned down by a killer found to be mentally ill and eventually granted his freedom. But the author’s burning sense of injustice doesn’t flow in all the predictable directions.

And some of that has to be rooted in the extraordinary DNA that he inherited from his slain dad – Allard Lowenstein, a legendary civil rights and peace activist of the 1960s, the brain behind Eugene McCarthy’s upstart 1968 presidential campaign who got himself elected to Congress on an anti-war plank. Allard Lowenstein’s 1980 murder by a deranged former acolyte left his young son “crushed,” in his own words, but he grew to oppose the death penalty as something that “infects our justice system with racism, classism, and politics, and, in the end, turns us into killers.”

“There certainly was an ethic in the family that if something’s not right, go do something about it,” Lowenstein told me last week. That said, when he began his research in 2001 he thought at the time, he wrote, that “I might come to understand something essential about murderers” – not about innocence. But in what now seems to be a case of foreshadowing, Lowenstein was introduced to Ogrod by Nick Yarris, another Philadelphia-area death-row inmate at the time, who would be freed a few years later when DNA showed another man had committed the murder Yarris had been convicted of.

Ogrod’s 1992 arrest had been on the front page of the Daily News – the seeming resolution of a murder that had torn apart Rutland Street, a rowhouse block off Cottman Avenue in Northeast Philly. On the steamy afternoon of July 12, 1988, a 4-year-old girl named Barbara Jean Horn wandered off in search of someone to play with, and turned up dead several hours later on a nearby sidewalk, stuffed inside the TV box.

Initially, no one was arrested even after the neighborhood was plastered with fliers showing a police sketch of a man whom several witnesses had seen lugging the box – short to average build, sandy blonde or brown hair, slight moustache. Four years later, two of Philadelphia’s most aggressive homicide detectives were put on the case; after an intense push to get Barbara Jean’s stepdad to confess, the cops set their sights on Ogrod, a somewhat “slow” young man who’d lived across the street in 1988 and now had a steady job driving a truck.

The detectives brought in Ogrod, who hadn’t slept the night before, and kept him up for another 14 hours, pressing their suspect that he was blocking out his memories of killing Barbara Jean, until Ogrod finally signed every page of a 16-page, highly detailed confession that had been written out by Detective Marty Devlin.

When Lowenstein finally met Ogrod nearly a decade later, the author said what struck him most was the Death Row inmate lack of affect and inability to express emotion – about his plight in prison, his difficult upbringing, or anything else  – yet the so-called confession was filled with angst; it quoted Ogrod stating that “you have no idea how hard this is for me” and that he wanted to commit suicide – nothing like the way he talked in real life.

There were other problems: Ogrod didn’t look anything like the police sketch, there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and there were strange gaps in the police work, such as a failure to search the apartment where Ogrod lived at the time of the arrest. Lowenstein was hardly the only one who thought the so-called confession rang false; when prosecutors first brought the case to trial in October 1993, the jury voted for acquittal only for one juror to blurt out that he’d changed his mind right as the verdict was being read, prompting a mistrial.

When the retrial came in 1996, the so-called confession had been pushed to the background. Prosecutors instead focused on a scenario developed by a notorious jailhouse snitch, John Hall, nicknamed “The Monsignor” because of his supposed ability to solicit confessions. Placed as Ogrod’s cellmate, Hall came forward with a claim that Ogrod had told him about a months-long scheme to kill Barbara Jean that was nothing like the story he’d allegedly told the detectives. Hall also introduced Ogrod to another snitch, Jay Wolchansky, who eventually told a variation of Hall’s tale on the stand at Ogrod’s second trial, in exchange for leniency in a pending case.

By 1997, Hall’s reputation as a witness was in tatters; he was nixed in the high-profile Center City jogger murder of Kimberly Ernest after admitting a scheme to fabricate and then claim he'd found key evidence, a necklace, from the cell of one of the defendants, and cops or prosecutors found him not credible in several other cases. In his dogged reporting, Lowenstein eventually persuaded Hall's wife (her husband died in a 2006 apparent drug overdose) to admit that she’d helped her husband lie about the Ogrod case and that she’d even written Ogrod letters in prison pretending to be a stripper named “Autumn,” in an unsuccessful attempt to elicit information.

But by then, Ogrod had already been convicted in his re-trial and sentenced to death, in large part because of the snitch testimony.  After Lowenstein published his first piece about the holes in Ogrod’s case in the Philadelphia City Paper in 2004, lawyers working through an American Bar Association death-penalty project began fighting to overturn his conviction; the first bid went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and failed, and efforts to introduce new evidence that could free Ogrod have dragged on for years. Another hearing is slated, tentatively, for July.

The Philadelphia DA’s office – which declined to comment for this column – continues to fight doggedly to keep Ogrod on Death Row.  One particular source of frustration is that both prosecutors and the courts have successfully rebuffed efforts to perform state-of-the-art DNA tests on fingernail scrapings taken from Barbara Jean in 1988 – tests that Ogrod’s lawyers believe could point to alternate suspects.

Lowenstein, who founded a New Orleans Journalism Project to help train the next generation of criminal-justice investigative reporters, said the current DA election in Philadelphia offers the city a chance to repent for some of our past sins.

“What I would like to see is the next DA in Philadelphia do a thorough review of death-penalty and life-imprisonment cases from the 1990s,” said Lowenstein, referring to the era when cops and prosecutors relied heavily on both high-pressure confession tactics and snitches, and when Lynne Abraham was dubbed “The Deadliest DA.” “There was a systemic problem with how that DA’s office was prosecuting people.”

Why wait until next year? Williams, the city’s current, badly broken top prosecutor, could take one small step for redemption by referring Ogrod’s case to the DA’s Conviction Review Unit, supposedly beefed up in February after years of broken promises, and by dropping the ridiculous resistance to DNA testing in the case. 

And maybe someday we’ll all be wondering why it had to take a man from 1,000 miles outside of Philadelphia to actually listen to Walter Ogrod.