Cook County prosecutors Tuesday cleared a dozen men of convictions tainted by a corrupt ex-Chicago police sergeant, the latest in a series of “mass exonerations” the state’s attorney’s office began in 2017.
Ronald Watts and Kallatt Mohammed led a tactical unit in the Ida B. Wells housing project and carried on a side business shaking down drug dealers and residents, using the threat of arrest to extort money and drugs. Watts and Mohammed were hit with federal charges in 2012 after they were recorded taking $5,200 from an informant in an FBI sting operation.
Prosecutors have wiped out more than 90 convictions connected to Watts’ team, beginning with a group of 15 defendants whose convictions were overturned at a hearing in November 2017. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has touted her record on criminal justice reform as she seeks a second term in office, sat in Chief Criminal Courts Judge LeRoy Martin Jr.’s courtroom during Tuesday’s brief hearing.
The 12 men whose cases were wiped out Tuesday had all served out their sentences in a total of 13 cases, and spent a total of 30 years in prison, said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.
At intervals of a few months, the State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit has announced batches of similar exonerations in Watts-related cases, the most recent coming in February 2019. The office set the number of cases exonerated because of Watts’ involvement at 94; Tepfer said there have been 95, and that he has nearly 100 other additional cases he has asked the state’s attorney to review.
Talking to reporters after the hearing, Foxx said that she has personally apologized to the defendants for the time they spent behind bars, and that her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit is still reviewing more Watts cases.
“When people do not believe that they can trust law enforcement, when they see the actions like a Sgt. Watts and his crew, then they tend to deal with the problems in their community without our assistance,” she said. “So it’s important that just as vigorously as we fight crime in the present that we right the wrongs of the past.”
Watts and Mohammed pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2013. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison and Mohammed received 18 months.