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Prosecutors toss more convictions in cases tied to former Sgt. Ronald Watts

Flanked by lawyers Josh Tepfer and Sean Starr, Derek Lewis addresses reporters after a hearing Monday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, where prosecutors cleared him of two drug convictions tainted by the involvement of corrupt Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts. | Andy Grimm for the Sun-Times

A Cook County judge on Monday tossed out convictions against 10 men who went to prison based on arrests made by former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, and defense attorneys say another four men will have their dubious convictions wiped off their records this week.

The “mass exoneration” is only the latest batch of convictions tied to Watts and members of his corrupt tactical unit that were thrown out by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in a little over a year. This brings the total number of defendants who were charged with crimes in cases tainted by Watts to 63, said Sean Starr, an attorney for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

“When the system fails one of us, it fails every single one of us,” Starr said at a news conference after a brief court hearing before Chief Criminal Court Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr. “Their stories are just the latest examples of a calculated, feigned ignorance on behalf of the Chicago Police Department of the victimization of black and brown, lower-income communities in Chicago. As citizens of the city, we need to demand more, we need to demand accountability.”

Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed in 2012 were charged with stealing $5,000 from a federal informant who recorded the shakedown — a sting that came after Watts and members of his unit allegedly targeted dozens of residents of the Ida B. Wells housing projects for bogus arrests.

Watts and Mohammed were the only officers charged in what was dubbed by federal agents as “Operation Brass Tax,” but the CPD placed 15 officers who worked on Watts’ unit on desk duty in November 2017, after Foxx’s office wiped out cases against 15 men who claimed they had been framed by Watts or officers under his command.

Derrick Lewis, who twice was sent to prison after Watts’ officers planted drugs on him, spent a total of more than seven years in prison. The convictions made his then-fiancée question his character, and she left him for another man while he was locked up. Though both his arrests took place more than a decade ago, Lewis said he still suffers because of his time behind bars.

“We lost things that you can never get back,” said Lewis, who protested that he was innocent from the moment he was arrested. “We have a right to feel how we feel, now that it’s coming out that we were actually telling the truth.”

Attorney Joshua Tepfer said he and other lawyers have reviewed claims from dozens of other defendants who said they were framed by Watts and his fellow officers. Those cases have been forwarded to Foxx’s office for review.

“As part of an ongoing review of these cases, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office determined it was appropriate to vacate these convictions and dismiss the charges in the interest of justice,” Foxx spokesman Robert Foley said in an e-mailed statement.