Bring the last cases involving corrupt cop Ronald Watts to an end

Now is the time to either close the cases involving Watts, or explain what makes these cases so different that they have to stay on the docket.

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Ronald Watts, a former Chicago police sergeant, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence.

Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

It is time to bring the remaining cases involving people allegedly framed by disgraced former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team to a conclusion.

Watts and a fellow officer were convicted in 2013 of stealing thousands of dollars from a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI informant. He and his team were also accused of falsely arresting numerous individuals for drug felonies in the former Ida B. Wells housing project on the South Side. Defendants say Watts and his team threatened residents and drug dealers alike with arrests in a plot to extort them, made many arrests and then lied about it in reports and on the witness stand.

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The Watts case was not a bright spot, to say the least, in Chicago’s checkered history of criminal justice.

During her tenure, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has dropped dozens of the cases involving Watts and his associated officers, for which Foxx deserves credit.

But 41 cases involving 39 people linger, and her office has not persuasively explained why. Now is the time to either close those cases or explain what makes them so different that they have to stay on the docket.

So far, in court filings, Foxx’s office has not done so. Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer at the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project who worked on dozens of the Watts cases, said in a filing Monday that nothing in the state’s attorney’s court filings explains why prosecutors are treating the remaining 41 petitions differently from those that already have been dismissed. In effect, the office is in the position of seeming to continue to accept the work of corrupt police officers, which is inexplicable.

Justice has been denied for far too long. The arrests date back up to two decades, and those who were convicted have served their time or completed probation. Clearing their names does not involve any concern about releasing dangerous criminals back onto the street. But those who were victimized by corrupt police officers deserve to get clean slates.

Since November, the convictions of 49 individuals have been vacated in batches, leaving 39 people with unresolved cases.

The longer the Watts scandal lingers over the police department, the larger a cloud it casts. The Illinois Appellate Court called Watts and his team “corrupt police officers” and “criminals,” and the chief justice of the Illinois Court of Claims wrote in 2018, “Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team of police officers ran what can only be described as a criminal enterprise.” Foxx’s office no longer will accept the testimony of 10 of the officers allegedly involved because the office believes the officers lied about what they did.

So why have these cases not already come to a conclusion?

After the Watts scandal erupted, the city put 15 officers on desk duty. Last year, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability gave the city two reports about the involvement of the officers, though it is not known if the reports included information on all 15. The city has not released those reports. Given the extraordinary allegations of police criminality, the city should make those reports public.

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Chicago is still working through its scandals with inmates who say they were tortured by former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew, and with former Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who as of last year had cost the city more than $50 million in legal fees associated with exonerations. It would be good to bring the Watts cases to a close.

The next court date is April 22, when a judge will consider a motion for summary judgment to vacate all 41 remaining convictions and clear the names of the remaining people who say they were victimized by Watts and his team. Foxx’s office should make a decision about these cases before then.

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