Anthony McDaniels has always said that Chicago Police officers shook him down for cash and drugs, then planted a gun on him when he complained. Now, his lawyers say, there is mounting evidence that McDaniels is telling the truth, as were hundreds of other people put behind bars based on arrests made by a crew of cops headed by disgraced CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts.
With McDaniels now nine years into a 12-year prison term, his lawyers on Wednesday had the first hearing on a bid to throw out his 2011 conviction on a weapons charge. The court date was just hours before State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office announced it was dropping murder cases against two men who claimed they were framed by longtime CPD detective Reynaldo Guevara.
McDaniels’ lawyer, Joshua Tepfer, said a state’s attorney who campaigned on a reform platform should have an easy decision to make after Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed in 2013 pleaded guilty to stealing $5,200 from an FBI informant, in a shakedown reminiscent of McDaniels’ own story.
“Whether you have a case built on the word of these officers, and what we know about these officers working under Sgt. Watts, would this state’s attorney, today, bring that case?” said Tepfer, a lawyer for the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project.
“The answer has to be no, and it has to be no under an administration that ran on the whole idea of reforming, and bringing integrity back to, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office,” he said.
McDaniels said Mohammed and another officer planted a gun in his car after taking $648 in cash from him. Two years after McDaniels’ case went to trial, Watts and Mohammed both would be caught on a wire, robbing the informant. Three people sent to prison based on arrests by members of Watts’ crew have had their convictions overturned, and a pair of officers who worked to expose Watts last year won a $2 million judgment from the city.
Tepfer and independent journalist Jamie Kalven had pressed Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez, to appoint a “special master” to consider clearing defendants in possibly hundreds of arrests made by Watts and officers who worked in his unit. Tepfer noted that many cases, including McDaniels, hinged solely on dubious testimony from Watts and his subordinates.
“This is not complicated. This review does not have to be some sort of three-year review of each individual case,” Tepfer said.
Foxx’s office has said that Watts-related cases are under review, starting with defendants who still are serving time.
In his motion for a new trial, McDaniels claims he was arrested by Mohammed and Officer Douglas Nichols as he walked to his car outside his house. Mohammed took McDaniels’ cash, but when McDaniels said he had no more to give, he said Nichols claimed to have found a gun under the seat of his car.
In reports on the arrest, two other officers said they made the arrest after McDaniels ran to the car, dropped the gun, then dove in the passenger seat and rode off with two other people. The reports say McDaniels was arrested after a car chase that ended several blocks away, but no mention is made of the other people in the car. Mohammed said he drove McDaniels’ car to a police station after the arrest, but a tow truck driver said he towed the car from in front of McDaniels’ house.
No attorney from the state’s attorney’s office was present in Cook County Judge Arthur F. Hill’s court Wednesday, which is not unusual for the first filing in a post-conviction case. Tepfer said it might be unlikely, but he’s hoping for a swift resolution as soon as the judge rules on whether McDaniels’ claim has merit, if not sooner.
“They don’t have to wait for me to file a post-conviction case,” Tepfer said. “They could walk in and say, ‘We do not stand by this case, or any of the Watts cases.’ ”
While Watts’ team frequently targeted drug dealers and gang members who had other prior convictions, the police officers in those cases no longer more credible witnesses than the people they were arresting, Tepfer said.
“The police officers were the criminals,” he said.