A Cook County judge vacated felony convictions for 15 defendants who said they were framed by former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who was convicted of shaking down drug dealers more than a dozen years ago, on Thursday.
After the hearing, attorney Joshua Tepfer noted that this was the first “mass exoneration” in the history of Cook County. “It’s an extraordinary sign of what’s going on in this county and this city to have a crucial law enforcement entity take this step and overturn all these convictions in recognition of a systemic problem of police corruption,” he said.
Watts led a crew of dirty officers who, for more than a decade, robbed and extorted protection money from drug dealers and gang members in the Ida B. Wells public housing project. Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed each pleaded guilty to charges in 2012, but justice has been slow in coming for those caught in the cross-hairs of their long-running scam.
Ten of the defendants stood in the courtroom when Chief Criminal Courts Judge LeRoy K. Martin approved the motion by prosecutors to throw out a total of 18 cases against 15 black men who all say they were locked up for no other reason except that they refused to pay Ronald Watts.
Hours after the exoneration, Chicago police said seven officers who were once part of the corrupt crew will be removed from street duties while their conduct from years ago is investigated.
Police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said Thursday night that one sergeant and six officers who worked with Watts have been placed on paid desk duty while an internal investigation is conducted.
Asked earlier Thursday why several officers tied to Watts’ corrupt crew were still on the force, police superintendent Eddie Johnson said that none had been convicted of a crime — unlike Watts.
“They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country,” he told reporters. “… But we just can’t arbitrarily take the job away from people.”
Asked whether those officers might be taken off the streets while the department looks into the cases, Johnson said, “Once I get enough information, then that may be what happens. But right now, … we are looking at it.”
In the wake of the mass exoneration, attorneys vowed to continue to review potentially hundreds of convictions tied to Watts and his crew.
According to Tepfer, as many as 500 additional convictions still need to be checked out. “It needs to be investigated and vetted about how many of those are appropriate to overturn,” he told reporters after the charges had been tossed. “We are very much in the process of doing that.”
Mark Rotert, head of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit whose investigation led to the dismissals, promised a careful review of remaining cases tied to Watts and his crew.
All 15 men are now eligible to file potentially lucrative wrongful conviction lawsuits against the city. They had completed their sentences, which included prison time for many. Two remain in custody on unrelated charges.
The Watts-related convictions of five other people had previously been thrown out, so Thursday’s development brings the total to 20 of those cleared of wrongdoing. In addition, two Chicago police officers who alleged they were blackballed for trying to expose Watts’ corruption years ago won a $2 million settlement in their whistleblower lawsuit.
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