Voices: Thomas Lowenstein and “The Trials of Walter Ogrod”

For 16 years, Thomas Lowenstein has been following the case of Walter Ogrod, and has finally written a book about how he ended up on death row in spite of no real evidence of his guilt.

The Trials of Walter Ogrod is not the book Thomas Lowenstein set out to write.

“I wanted to explore a death penalty case and how it affects all those involved. I assumed I’d be writing about a guilty person as well as the victim’s family, the police, the investigation, the trial, and the sentence of death — just look at a death penalty case from beginning to end,” he says.

So in 2001, he picked two death row inmates at random and wrote to them, explaining that if they agreed to work with him, they would have to allow him to read their entire file, to be interviewed in person, and let him write whatever he believed to be the truth about their case. One of the two who responded was Walter Ogrod, who had been on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1996, convicted of killing four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, who lived in his Philadelphia neighborhood, in 1988. In his letter, Ogrod insisted to Lowenstein that he was innocent, and Lowenstein started his research. “I met him face to face in 2002,” he says. “And by the time I met him, I had real doubts about his guilt.” Lowenstein noted that it took four years for police to arrest Ogrod, there was no physical evidence or eyewitness identification, and that Ogrod, who is on the autism spectrum disorder, signed a 16-page confession after being interrogated for 14 hours without an attorney present.

It was the confession that really convinced Lowenstein that Ogrod hadn’t done it. “The confession says that ‘Ogrod burst into tears and then told them the whole story.’ That he said, ‘Please, Officer, give me a minute. I never meant to hurt that little girl.’ Ogrod’s not like that. It’s literally not possible that he could stop and say please give me a minute. It was a way of speaking and expressing himself that he’s just not capable of. He can’t access his emotions, [talking to him] is like talking to Rain Man” (the autistic character Dustin Hoffman played in the movie, “Rain Man”).

After their initial meeting, which lasted about six hours, Lowenstein spent the next two days, six hours each day, interviewing Ogrod on death row. He was convinced of his innocence, a conviction that was strengthened after he met Peter Neufeld, one of the co-founders of the Innocence Project, at a conference. He briefly described the case, Neufeld advised him what documents to pursue, and told him to email him with more details. About a month after he sent the email, Neufeld called him and told him “it is the most textbook case of a false confession I’ve ever seen.”

Ogrod was actually found not guilty during his first trial. The jury had filled out the form, and delivered it to the judge. But minutes before the foreman stood to read the verdict out loud, a lone juror stood up, and said he changed his mind, and instead of declaring Ogrod a free man, the judge declared a mistrial.

So, in spite of his lawyer’s argument that a second trial constituted double jeopardy, Ogrod was back in jail, awaiting another trial. And while he waited, a notorious jailhouse snitch — “His nickname was the ‘Monsignor,’” Lowenstein says, “because he heard so many confessions.” -– was moved into his cell block. The “Monsignor” was John Hall, and after befriending Ogrod, he began sending letters to prosecutors, elaborating in great detail how Ogrod had confessed to the murder.

“He wrote these long, nonsensical letters to the district attorney, detailing how Walter had confessed to him. But what he wrote Walter had told him didn’t match what Walter had supposedly told the police [in his 16-page confession],” Lowenstein said. “What he wrote had no bearing on reality. It was so crazy, it’s hard to believe anyone took it seriously.”

But a second snitch was also placed in Ogrod’s cell block, and told prosecutors the same story Hall had told. And after prosecutors at Ogrod’s second trial told the jury his police confession was false, and the true story was what he told John Hall, the jury convicted Ogrod and sentenced him to death after just 90 minutes of deliberation. (Lowenstein says John Hall was facing a possible sentence of 25-50 years for assaulting a police officer, but after Ogrod’s conviction he was sentenced to just a few months.)

So The Trials of Walter Ogrod, which was conceived as an exploration of a capital murder case, from the crime, to the trial, to the death sentence, became instead a case study of a man, with intellectual disabilities, who Lowenstein believes was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not that uncommon a story these days– the Death Penalty Information Center says at least 155 men and women have been exonerated from death row on evidence of innocence since 1973 — but it is a compelling look at how broken the death penalty system is, with jailhouse snitches, false confessions, and a case that was tried twice, in Philadelphia, “a place so poisoned by police misconduct that it long ago lost its sense of shame,” as Rolling Stone once wrote.

But Walter Ogrod’s story isn’t over. Thanks to Lowenstein, and others who believe in his innocence, he has new lawyers from a prestigious law firm representing him who can bring in expert witnesses, hire investigators, and mount the kind of defense Ogrod didn’t have in his first two trials.

Sixteen years, including weekly phone calls, and one 348-page book after meeting him, Lowenstein firmly believes Walter Ogrod will be exonerated. There are still serious challenges; the judge who will decide whether Ogrod should be granted a new trial, for instance, is a former prosecutor, whose mentor was the former district attorney who put Ogrod on death row. But Lowenstein says, “It’s a good time right now because there is a new DA, the state Supreme Court is a lot more liberal than it was, and he has the best legal team.

“I know this case backward and forward and I want him to get out because I know he’s innocent,” Lowenstein says. “We just need to bring this case into the sunlight.”

The Trials of Walter Ogrod,” by Thomas Lowenstein, Chicago Review Press, was released on April 1, 2017

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