Philly man on death row, who claims innocence, seeks emergency release after exhibiting coronavirus symptoms

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Lawyers for a Philadelphia man on death row for a murder he claims he did not commit have filed an emergency motion asking for his release, saying the man is exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. 

"He had a fever that spiked to 106 degrees, he describes his breathing as breathing through a sponge,” explained Boston-based attorney James Rollins, who represents Walter Ogrod. 

The 56-year-old was convicted in 1992 for the cold case murder of a 4-year-old in Northeast Philadelphia. 

From the beginning, Ogrod has maintained his innocence, claiming his confession was coerced by police. 

And in recent months, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit agreed, arguing that Ogrod is likely innocent and that his conviction and sentence should be vacated.

"In the last week and a half, Mr. Ogrod has exhibited symptoms of coronavirus,” Rollins said. 

Rollins said the symptoms, including a dry cough, have only been treated with Tylenol and that Ogrod has been placed in and out of isolation. 

For this reason, they have expedited the request for Ogrod's freedom, despite the fact that he has not yet been tested.

"There's no reason for him to still be in prison. He's innocent. The judge needs to act on the petition. Barring his immediate release, we at least want him to get some treatment beyond what's available in the prison,” Rollins added. 

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner tweeted that his office supports the emergency motion for Ogrod's release.

What prison reform advocates are saying

Prison reform advocates held a press call Thursday, asking Gov. Tom Wolf to use his executive power to release low-risk inmates who are most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. 

The request came in the form of a four-page letter to the governor, asking his administration to use the emergency powers of the executive to lower the Department of Corrections’ prison population, with a special focus on the 1,900 inmates who are over 60, many who have serious medical conditions.

BREAKING: Today we joined @AbolitionistLC and @AmistadLaw in urging @GovernorTomWolf, Lt Gov @JohnFetterman and other state officials to act quickly to release people who are incarcerated and vulnerable to COVID-19.

— ACLU of Pennsylvania (@aclupa) March 18, 2020

"With COVID-19 spreading the way that it is, we can anticipate that it will get into every prison and spread very rapidly,” said Bret Grote, who works with the Abolitionist Law Center, which wrote the letter along with the Amistad Law Project and the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

"They eat together, they use the same toilets. Most of them have cell mates. They congregate together in years' space by the hundreds,” Grote added. 

The advocates also asked the Parole Board to expedite hearings for the most vulnerable, as well as probation to suspend reincarceration for technical violations. 

In recent days, the Department of Corrections suspended all visitation and rolled out protocols such as staff screenings, increased access to soap and more virtual communication between inmates and families during the COVID-19 crisis. 

If you have friends or family currently in one of Pennsylvania's prisons, please see the below letter on how @CorrectionsPA is working to ensure you can still have contact with them.

— Jordan A. Harris (@RepHarris) March 19, 2020  

However, advocates say that’s not enough.

"Right now, people inside are scared, they are apprehensive and they're even more isolated than normal,” Grote added.  

“Currently, we have no positive cases of COVID-19 in our state prison system. We are fully compliant with CDC guidelines for testing,” Pennsylvania Department of Correction spokesperson Susan McNaughton said in an email.

She added inmates have access to medical personnel, and a “centralized contracted doctor” whose specialty is in public health has been brought back “as a special advisor type of doctor.”