Ben Baker spent the last decade in jail, professing his innocence of drug charges he’d maintained a corrupt police sergeant framed him for.
On Thursday, the South Side man’s allegations against convicted Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts — in a case that has highlighted an alleged code of silence within the department — finally earned him his freedom.
Baker, 43, was released late Thursday from Robinson Correctional Center in downstate Robinson after the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project succeeded in having the charges dismissed.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Baker’s sister, Gale Anderson, who drove down with Baker’s niece to bring him home. “I’m still just shocked, and don’t think I’ll believe it until I see him on the other side and hold him.”
“I’m still confused by how fast it all happened. I’m on the road but I still can’t believe it,” Baker said Thursdayevening,driving home with Anderson.“God is good. Idon’t know what to say. I’m just nervous and a little bit anxious,” he said. “I want some oxtail soup, and I want to take a bath in a real bathtub. Then we’ll see.”Baker, a father of seven with grandchildren he has never known, was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 14 years on charges of possession of narcotics with intent to deliver.
Then living in the Ida B. Wells public housing development, Baker was arrested on March 23, 2005, accused by arresting officers of having been seen in a third-floor stairwell with drugs in his hand. The officers said they chased him to the bottom of the stairs, where he was found with additional narcotics.
Baker maintained throughout his arrest, incarceration and trial that he had been framed by Watts and a cadre of corrupt Wentworth District police officers under him. Baker insisted Watts’ tactical team routinely shook down drug dealers within the development for protection fees and a share of dealings; framing those who didn’t go along.
Baker’s allegations fell on deaf ears.
“Those corrupt police officers framed him and no one would listen to him, but with all the cases in the news now, we’re seeing all the corruption and lies by this police department. We know what a lot of these officers were and still are,” said Anderson, one of Baker’s two siblings.
It was in 2011 that Watts — who had testified against Baker at his trial — was caught in an FBI sting, along with one member of his team, attempting to steal from an FBI informant $5,200 of what they believed was drug money. Watts and the other officer, Kallatt Mohammed, were indicted in February 2012 and convicted on theft of government funds. Mohmamed was sentenced to 18 months in prison; Watts to 22 months.
“Days like this, absolutely they feel great when you get a victory. But they’re always tainted with ‘Why didn’t this happen earlier, when this never should have happened in the first place?’ ” said Baker’s lawyer, Joshua Tepfer.
Tepfer last month filed a petition for a new trial, filing a slew of court and law enforcement records showing that at the time of Baker’s trial, Watts and his team of tactical officers —many still on the force to this day — had long faced corruption allegations and were under investigation by the FBI and CPD internal affairs.
In fact, two CPD officers had filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the city and high-ranking CPD personnel in 2012, alleging they endured a pattern of retaliation against them after reporting to supervisors about Watts and his team’s criminal activities in the Wells development.
“The police department white-washed over the corruption, because it was more interested in protecting their officers than the black and brown communities in public housing,” said Tepfer. “There is absolutely no question that the Chicago Police Department, FBI and state’s attorney’s office were well aware of Watts’ criminal enterprise for the last decade and a half, and charging him with that single case was actually part of a cover-up.”
In response to Tepfer’s petition, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office on Thursday vacated Baker’s conviction.
“As soon as this case was brought to our attention, my Conviction Integrity Unit began an immediate review of this case,” State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said. “Based upon our review and the fact that this now convicted officer provided key testimony during the trial of Mr. Baker, this conviction can no longer stand.”
Alvarez acknowledged there had been “multiple investigations” of Watts prior, but said the sergeant was not implicated in a crime until recorded in the 2011 case.
The case brings to 14 the number of defendants who have had their convictions vacated since creation of her Conviction Integrity Unit in 2012, said Alvarez, who is running for re-election, challenged by candidates Kim Foxx and Donna More. But Tepfer said there’s not much to crow about in the Baker case.
“What I would say is that as soon as I put this case on the state’s attorney’s radar four weeks ago, they acted quickly, and I think they should be commended for that,” the attorney said. “That said, when Ronald Watts was convicted, when he was charged, all of these cases should have been immediately on their radar and they should have looked back at all these cases, knowing that this could have happened many, many more times to many, many others.”
Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly responded that when Watts was convicted, prosecutors “checked and found no active cases where Watts was a potential witness,” adding that Baker’s petition was “the first time that these allegations were brought to our attention, and we acted upon it expeditiously.”
Tepfer said there is one other concern.
“The 2011 investigation proved Watts was running a criminal enterprise, controlling at least six to 10 officers who were targets of this joint law enforcement investigation,” Tepfer said. “And I’m telling you every single one of these officers who were not charged — every single one of them — is still on the force because there’s a code of silence in the Chicago Police Department.”