While millions of Americans shelter in place, one group simply cannot escape the coronavirus: prisoners. Among them are hundreds of people who have plausible claims that they are innocent, whose cases were working their way through the courts—until the coronavirus ground regular court business to a halt. What these stories reveal is the threat the virus poses to prisoners, both innocent and guilty, and to the wider population as a whole.
Walter Ogrod is one of those prisoners. February 28 brought the news that Ogrod had been waiting for ever since he was convicted of killing a 4-year-old girl and placed on death row 23 years ago: The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office told a court that Ogrod was “likely innocent,” and that his conviction was a “gross miscarriage of justice” based on evidence that was “false, unreliable, and incomplete.” He should be released. The judge set a hearing for March 27, then rescheduled it for June. Delays happen. Most everyone believed that Ogrod would soon walk out of prison.
But on March 11, when he could almost taste his freedom, Ogrod fell ill. “He described his breathing as like breathing through sponge,” one of his attorneys, James Rollins, told me. His fever spiked to 103 degrees. He suffered bouts of coughing. These symptoms are typical of someone infected with the coronavirus. When the prosecutors and Ogrod’s attorneys learned of his illness, they quickly secured a court order instructing the prison to move him to a hospital so that he could be tested and treated for COVID-19. But the prison refused, arguing that two of its doctors said he needed no such test. “It took almost a week for him to actually get a decongestant to try to address his breathing,” Rollins said.