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5 more cases tied to corrupt former Police Sgt. Ronald Watts dropped — leaving 83 others still in limbo

As of Thursday, 115 convictions tied to Watts and officers that worked for him have been overturned. Lawyers question why prosecutors are delaying even more exonerations.

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22 month sentence.
Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence.
Sun-Times file

Five more cases tied to disgraced former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts were dismissed by Cook County prosecutors during a brief hearing Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

But the number fell short of what attorneys representing an additional 83 men and women who claim they were framed by Watts have been hoping for. They are still seeking to have those convictions overturned, too.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has been steadily dropping cases tied to Watts as part of an ongoing review of convictions related to arrests made by Watts and other officers he supervised that has now spanned several years.

As of Thursday’s hearing, 115 convictions tied to Watts and his crew have been overturned, according to Attorney Joshua Tepfer with the Exoneration Project.

Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed pleaded guilty in 2013 in federal court after they were recorded during a sting operation taking $5,000 from an FBI informant and admitted to routinely extorting money from drug dealers.

Watts was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison, and Mohammed received 18 months. No other officers have been charged.

Watts and his crew of officers have also been accused of shaking down residents of the former Ida B. Wells housing project and pinning bogus drugs charges on them if they wouldn’t participate in the extortions.

Tepfer celebrated the victory for the five men who saw their convictions vacated and charges dismissed Thursday, while also lamenting the dozens of others who are still waiting.

“They literally wait for our call, hoping today will be the day,” Tepfer said after the hearing.

Assistant State’s Attorney Carol Rogala said her office was still reviewing more than 90 cases.

“We’re going to need some time,” Rogala told Judge Erica Reddick at the hearing. “There’s no way we can file the 90-plus all on one day.”

Reddick set Jan. 3 for the next hearing in the case. Prosecutors could still announce they plan to dismiss additional cases.

In a statement, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said that the exonerations were “a step towards righting the wrongs of the past and giving these individuals their names back.”

But Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman, who together filed a petition last summer that sought a judge’s order to force Foxx’s office to take action on 100 cases connected to the 88 petitioners, said prosecutors have had ample time to review the cases.

“It’s wonderful that these five are getting justice. I’m glad the state’s attorney is proud of that,” Flaxman said. “For the other 83 people, we can’t be celebrating, we’re still waiting, we’re still seeing delays in having their cases heard ... and it’s a theme in this scandal that we’re seeing delays in every place.

“I don’t know what the excuses are. I don’t know what the reasons are,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Foxx said Thursday said the office was still receiving documents in the cases, including as recently as Tuesday.

“The Conviction Integrity Unit and the Post-Conviction Unit carefully look at the facts and evidence in each case. This takes time and in order to right the wrongs of the past, we need to rely on facts and evidence,” the spokeswoman said.

Tepfer said it wasn’t just the prosecutors who he thinks are taking too long to right past wrongs to people who were “abducted” by Watts and his crew through phony arrests.

Tepfer said the city of Chicago still hasn’t publicly released a misconduct report about Watts and his crew the Civilian Office of Police Accountability completed and gave to the Chicago Police Department in March.

Those delays, Tepfer said, cause ongoing harm to the relationship between police and the community.

“When you’re looking at the scope of what Ronald Watts and his officers did to the African American community, in the housing projects on the South Side, I just remain deeply, deeply, deeply troubled that this was allowed to go on in the city of Chicago,” Tepfer said.

All of the people seeking exoneration have already served their sentences, the attorneys said Thursday, which amounted to more than 270 years behind bars handed out to all of those already exonerated.

Clarissa Glenn, whose Watts-tied case was overturned in 2016, said the ongoing battle for others to clear their names and for more officers to be held accountable was shameful.

“I saw a team that took an oath to uphold the law,” Glenn said of other officers in Watts crew who are still on the force. “I feel they should not be on the police system, sitting behind a desk, or even serving Chicago, period.

“Where is our protection?” she asked.