Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr.’s Tuesday court call was crowded with defendants seeking to formally wipe out convictions in bogus cases made by disgraced former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.
In all, Martin granted certificates of innocence to nine men whose cases were thrown out by prosecutors based on allegations Watts and officers on his tactical team planted drugs, falsified reports and lied in court — and the chief Cook County criminal court judge indicated he’d happily have cleared all 15 defendants of their Watts-related records but for a technicality in state law.
And during a brief hearing moments before his ruling on the certificates of innocence, Martin vacated convictions of two other men who were also claimed they were framed by Watts, and another man with a Watts-connected convictions was on hand, thinking he was also on Martin’s call for the day. The confusion is understandable, as a growing list of suspect cases involving Watts’ officers could be clogging Martin’s dockets for month and years to come.
“Here we are today being vindicated,” said an emotional Phillip Thomas, who served a total of six years on two bogus counts after he was arrested by Watts’ team. Watts pleaded guilty to stealing $5,200 from a federal informant, a shakedown that was all to familiar to residents of the Ida B. Wells housing projects that Watts’ unit patrolled.
All of the men exonerated today had claimed they were framed by Watts or officers under his command, and that drugs were planted on them, reports falsified and officer lied on the witness stand. For years, no one believed them, said the 60-year-old Thomas.
“Nobody wants to listen to you nobody wants to hear your story,” he said. “Because you’re guilty. Because you’re from Ida B. Wells.”
People have begun listening in recent years. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision last fall to back away from the Watts-tainted cases involving the 15 men, on a total of 18 separate charges, marked the first “mass exoneration” of multiple defendants linked to the same pattern of wrongdoing by a group of officers.
The petitions seeking exonerations by the five other men would seem to point out that cases built on arrests by Watts’ crew could be filling the court docket for months and years to come, with lawyers hundreds of other defendants can make similar, credible claims that they were framed.
Nearly 30 defendants to date have had convictions based on arrests by Watts and his team thrown out to date, most of them felony drug charges with relatively short sentences that defendants already have completed. Hundreds of other Watts cases loom, Tepfer said.
While Watts and Mohammed both pleaded guilty to the charges nearly five years ago, but in recent months Chicago Police brass seem have taken a fresh look at officers who worked under him, with 15 officers with ties to Watts placed on desk duty in January.