Prosecutors won’t challenge ‘innocence certificates’ for 15 men framed by Watts

SHARE Prosecutors won’t challenge ‘innocence certificates’ for 15 men framed by Watts
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Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts is shown leaving the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013. He’d just been sentenced to 22 months in prison after being found guilty. | Sun-Times file photo

Cook County prosecutors in December made history with the first “mass exoneration,” dropping cases against 15 men who were convicted of felonies based on bogus testimony by Chicago Police officers under the command of crooked Sgt. Ronald Watts.

Tuesday, the head of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit said the office would not oppose a petition to have the convictions wiped from their records. Lawyers for the 15 men, who all were convicted of felonies based on testimony from Watts or members of the tactical unit he commanded in the Ida B. Wells housing projects, last month asked Chief Judge LeRoy K. Martin to grant the men a “certificate of innocence.”

Martin was not on the bench Tuesday, but a ruling on the petition is expected at a hearing Feb. 13.

A certificate of innocence is awarded only in cases of factual innocence — where charges have been vacated because no crime occurred, not because of legal technicalities. If granted, each of the defendants is able to expunge the convictions from their records and receive payouts of up to $85,000 from a state fund for wrongfully convicted defendants, said Josh Tepfer, an attorney for the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project.

“What it means is after years and years of screaming to anyone that would listen that this horrendous misconduct was going on and being covered up for so long, being ignored, now people are finally listening,” Tepfer told reporters outside Martin’s courtroom.

Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed were convicted in 2013 of shaking down an FBI informant for cash after a years-long investigation of what defense lawyers have said was a wide-ranging extortion scam targeting resident of the Wells projects. Seven other officers who served under Watts were put on desk duty by the department just hours after Foxx’s office dropped charges against the 15 men, pending an investigation of misconduct allegations.

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