Flanked by lawyers Joshua Tepfer and Sean Starr, Kenneth Hicks, center, addresses reporters Friday after prosecutors vacated a 2007 drug conviction that was based on a bogus arrest by former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts. Hicks served 18 months on the phony charges. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

7 more cleared in bogus arrests made by CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew

SHARE 7 more cleared in bogus arrests made by CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew
SHARE 7 more cleared in bogus arrests made by CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew

Six men and one woman on Friday became the latest defendants to have convictions tied to bogus arrests by corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts thrown out by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

The seven exonerations come a little more than a month after Foxx’s office moved to vacate convictions entered against 18 men arrested by Watts’ crew, bringing the total number of exonerees framed by Watts to 50, said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, who has represented many of the Watts defendants. At a news conference after the brief court hearing Friday, Tepfer said the group has reviewed dozens more credible claims of frame-ups by Watts and officers under his command.

“I think the question we’ve all got to start asking now is, everybody here, ‘What’s next? Where’s the accountability?'” Tepfer said, standing in front of the seven exonerated people and another dozen defendants who on Friday were granted certificates of innocence. Those certificates allow them to have their criminal records purged of the false charges and pursue a payout from a state fund for the wrongfully convicted.

Police officials last year put a total of 15 officers tied to Watts’ crew on desk duty, and Foxx’s office has announced they would no longer call them as witnesses for any purpose, Tepfer noted.

Watts in 2012 pleaded guilty to stealing cash from an FBI informant and was sentenced to 22 months in prison. Fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed also pleaded guilty to charges. Prosecutors and Tepfer’s court filings have outlined how Watts and his fellow officers for nearly a decade shook down drug dealers and random residents of the now-demolished Ida B. Wells housing projects, typically demanding drugs or cash, and arresting those who refused.

Deon Willis twice was jailed on bogus arrests made by Watts’ team after refusing to pay bribes, getting a probation sentence on charges in 2002 and landing in prison for two years after a bogus 2008 arrest.

“We lived in an area where these police officers did what they wanted to for a very long time,” Willis said. “We had to come out of our hallways, our apartments, peeking out our doors making sure they weren’t riding on the street.”

Kenneth Hicks had prior convictions when he was stopped by Watts’ team as he went to visit an elderly relative near the Wells projects in 2007. The officers demanded information about drug sales in the neighborhood, and when Hicks had none to offer, they arrested him on drug charges that landed him in jail for 18 months. Hicks, who was working as custodian and maintenance man, said the false conviction and added jail time scarred him.

“If I did something, I will do the time,” Hicks said. “But you lock me up for something I didn’t do, when all I’m doing is out there trying to do right? That’s wrong.”

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