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Lawyers: Case of man freed in crooked-cop case an indictment of CPD

Ben Baker, falsely imprisoned on a drug charges, and one of his attorneys, Jon Loevy, speak to the media Friday. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

The case of a South Side man framed by crooked Chicago police officers, wrongfully imprisoned for a decade and finally released this week when charges were dropped, is an indictment of the entire Chicago Police Department, the man’s civil rights attorneys charged on Friday.

“This case is of course, an exoneration, which is always important, and always important to learn from, but this case is bigger than that in many, many ways,” Joshua Tepfer of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, who represented Ben Baker, said at a news conference.

“This case is about the Chicago Police Department’s code of silence. It’s about ensuring people who were victimized by a corrupt group of police officers come forward with their story so they can get belated justice too,” he said.

Baker, 43, was arrested in the Ida B. Wells public housing development on March 23, 2005, after officers assigned to the development said he was caught in possession of narcotics with intent to deliver.

Baker maintained throughout his arrest, trial and incarceration that he’d been framed by a cadre of corrupt Wentworth District tactical police officers who worked under Ronald Watts, a sergeant convicted and imprisoned in 2013. Watts and one of the officers on his Ida B. Wells team were caught in a 2011 FBI sting attempting to steal $5,200 from a drug-dealing informant.

Baker was freed only after the Exoneration Project took up his case and found evidence of the corruption of Watts and his team that had gone on for years in that district, despite other officers reporting it to supervisors, and ongoing investigation by the CPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the FBI, attorneys with the project charged.

And Baker’s freedom was owed less to the mountain of evidence in thick files on a table — including abundant admissions from a 2012 whistle-blowing lawsuit by officers alleging they were retaliated against for reporting the corruption — and more to the current cases that have shined a spotlight on CPD corruption, the attorneys said.

“This case illustrates what we’ve heard so much about lately, which is a lack of accountability. That this could have operated in plain sight, and for the period of years that it did, with these police officers basically acting like officers in the movie, ‘Training Day,’ treating this community as if they could just be robbed and stolen from with impunity,” said Jon Loevy of Loevy & Loevy.

“So, it is commendable that the federal government prosecuted and convicted Mr. Watts, but there were as many as six to eight other officers in his crew that were not prosecuted, and in fact went on to be promoted, and to this day, have not suffered any other repercussions or consequences whatsoever,” Loevy said.

With the U.S. Justice Department investigating CPD in the wake of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald and other recent Chicago Police shooting cases that have rocked the city with protests, the attorneys are hoping DOJ will look into the Baker case and specifically, into the other officers implicated who remain on the force.

McDonald, 17, was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The shooting was captured on a police dashcam video that the city withheld for over a year until a judge ordered the release of the video.

The attorneys also blasted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’ office, saying it took too long to do the right thing in the case. The office has said it acted as soon as it was made aware of the case.

Baker, a father of five with grandchildren he has never seen, stood with his attorneys but was mostly quiet.

“I’m thankful. You know, it’s been a long time coming, but I guess slow justice beats no justice,” he said.