Yesterday, the Cook County State’s Attorney vacated 18 convictions tied to 15 defendants. All 15 defendants have a connection to one former Chicago police sergeant, Ronald Watts.
The defendants were arrested between 2003 – 2008 with some of them serving up to nine years in prison. All of the 15 men have completed their prison sentences. The convictions were turned over as Watts and his team allegedly planted drugs on those they arrested and falsified court records.
“Part of that corruption was the routine framing of citizens,” attorney Joshua Tepfer who drafted the original petition said. According to the Exoneration Project of which Tepfer is a part of, Watts and “his tactical team terrorized residents of the Ida B. Wells housing community for a decade.”
Watts is no longer working for the Chicago Police Department and has served time in federal prison for unrelated reasons. Now, seven members who are still serving with the CPD who served under Watts and removed from street patrols and reassigned to desk duty while their own actions are being investigated.
Superintendent Eddie Johnson noted that none of these officers have been convicted of a crime and will continue to remain on the force. The Chicago Tribune quotes Johnson as saying, “They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country” and that “we just can’t arbitrarily take the job away from people.”
For their part, the Tribune has investigated Watts for almost a year.
“Watts has repeatedly been accused of forcing residents and drug dealers alike to pay a “protection” tax and putting bogus cases on those who refused to do so. In case after case, when Watts’ targets complained — to the Police Department or in court — judges, prosecutors and internal affairs investigators all believed the testimony of Watts and other officers over their accusers, records show. In addition to the alleged frame-ups by Watts, the petition filed in September on behalf of the 15 men highlighted a broken system of police discipline that allegedly protects bad officers and punishes those who tried to expose his corruption.”
Leonard Gipson is one of the petitioners who’s conviction was overturned. He alleges that Watts planted heroin on him during an arrest in 2003. He eventually pleaded guilty on advice from his attorney despite having committed no crime.
He was one of those in the court room on Thursday to see these false charges overturned and three drug charges that he’d previously been convicted for dropped from his record.
This decision and investigation is ground-breaking and Tepfer said he felt “extraordinarily heartened” at the decision to vacate these convictions.
“This is something that’s rarely done in the country, as far as I know,” Tepfer said, “where cases are looked at en masse because of some sort of law enforcement or official problem and in the interest of justice that we have to do a clean sweep.”