Ex-CPD sergeant’s corruption toll: 212 convictions overturned after dozens more thrown out Friday

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office did an about-face Friday and said it would agree to vacating the convictions of an additional 44 people it had initially opposed.

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Exoneration Project attorney Josh Tepfer stands with defense attorneys and men who accused corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts of framing them for drug charges.

Exoneration Project attorney Josh Tepfer stands with defense attorneys and men who accused corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts of framing them for drug charges.

Matthew Hendrickson | Sun-Times

Cook County prosecutors announced Friday they would no longer oppose vacating dozens of remaining convictions tied to corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.

The state’s attorney’s office did an about-face at the hearing after previously stating they were prepared to contest vacating the remaining convictions, which stemmed from felony drug arrests in the early 2000s at the former Ida B. Wells housing project in Bronzeville.

During a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Assistant State’s Attorney Catherine Malloy told Presiding Criminal Division Judge Erica Reddick that although the remaining cases “involved work of officers who have not been impugned in Watts’ nefarious conduct,” her office believed “the participation or unknown interference of Watts and other discredited officers in these arrests and convictions raises concerns about the integrity of these cases” and would no longer contest them.

Attorneys for the men and women whose names have been cleared called it a “historic day” and the “end of an era” in Cook County during which Watts and his crew “did untold damage to a community.”

The convictions represented “over 440 years of sentences in the Illinois Department of Corrections, which damaged untold amounts of lives,” Exoneration Project attorney Josh Tepfer said in the courthouse lobby.

Reddick threw out 44 additional convictions Friday, bringing the total number of overturned convictions in Watts-related cases to 212, the state’s attorney’s office said.

“The work to give relief to Watts’ victims is directly related to our public safety today,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement after the hearing. “In order to restore trust in the criminal justice system, as prosecutors, we must approach every case with an eye toward the facts, the evidence, and the law.”

The first mass exoneration of defendants in Watts-related cases happened in 2017 when 18 convictions tied to 15 people were thrown out in a single hearing.

Last summer, a petition was filed on behalf of 88 people who accused Watts of framing them to push the state’s attorney’s office to take action after defense attorneys became frustrated with how long prosecutors’ review of some of the cases was taking.

Since then, the state’s attorney’s office has announced it would contest overturning some of the convictions, but said it wouldn’t oppose others.

Earlier this month, attorneys for the Watts accusers filed a motion for a summary judgment on behalf of 39 people whose cases prosecutors continued to oppose relief for, arguing that the state’s attorney’s office had not disputed the facts in the cases.

All 88 have now seen their convictions overturned, as well as three additional convictions the state’s attorney’s office said it wouldn’t oppose vacating Friday.

Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2013 after they were recorded taking $5,000 from an FBI informant and admitted to routinely extorting money from residents and drug dealers. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison and Mohammed received 18 months.

Tyrone Fenton, who went to prison for two years after being framed by Watts, said Friday “Watts came into our neighborhood and terrorized our neighborhood [by] planting drugs on us.”

Fenton, 48, said he didn’t understand why other members of Watts’ crew were still on the force today.

“I would like them to be brought to justice,” Fenton said. “I feel they should be incarcerated as well, and do time just like we did time. ... I think they should be fired.”

Attorney Joel Flaxman urged the city of Chicago to act.

“It’s time for the city to step up and have some real accountability against officers who ... are still on the force, still drawing a paycheck, who have been investigated for years and years and years and we still don’t have any kind of results.”

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