CHICAGO — A judge on Thursday threw out convictions against 15 men who allege they were framed by a corrupt former Chicago Police sergeant and his underlings who demanded protection payoffs from residents and drug dealers in a city housing project.
Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. agreed to dismiss the charges after Cook County prosecutors confirmed at a brief hearing that they no longer had faith in the credibility of convictions brought against the men who were arrested on various drug charges from 2003 to 2008 by the rogue cop Ronald Watts and officers under his charge.
“In good conscience we could not see these convictions stand,” said Mark Rotert, who heads the Cook County State's Attorney's conviction integrity unit.
The mass exoneration is the latest mark on the Chicago Police Department, which has come under fire in the city’s black and Latino communities for unnecessarily using deadly force, police brutality and mistreatment of minorities.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report in the final days of the Obama administration about the Chicago Police Department finding that the city’s police force is beset by widespread racial bias, poor training and feckless oversight of officers accused of misconduct.
Following the dismissal of charges against the 15 men on Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a joint statement that they had “zero tolerance for abuse, misconduct or any unlawful actions” by law enforcement. More convictions could potentially be overturned as the integrity unit says it will review any credible complaints brought by people convicted of crimes that were investigated by Watts.
“The actions of Ronald Watts must be condemned by all of us, and we will continue our work to ensure the abuses of the past are never repeated in the future,” Emanuel and Johnson said in the statement.
The dismissals come two months after lawyers for the 15 men filed a petition on their behalf asking that their drug convictions be overturned because they had been framed by Watts.
Watts and another officer, Kallat Mohammed, pleaded guilty on federal charges in 2013 for stealing money from a drug courier who'd been working as an FBI informant. Watts received a 22-month sentence and Mohammed was sentenced to 18-months in federal prison for the shakedowns.
But the petitioners said Watts and his officers had terrorized residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing complex, a massive complex on the city’s South Side that is now shuttered, for years before they were caught by federal agents.
The petitioners also allege that several other officers, beyond Mohammed, took part in the scheme to plant drugs on innocent residents and drug dealers who refused to pay protection money. Several hours after the convictions were overturned, police department spokesman Frank Giancamilli confirmed that six officers and one sergeant who worked under Watts on the overturned cases, and are still work for the police department, were placed on desk duty pending an internal review of the cases.
Rotert said after reviewing the cases prosecutors concluded that the police officers were “not being truthful” and lost confidence in the arresting officers’ reports and testimony.
Rotert declined to speak about specific evidence that led State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to move to ask the courts to drop the charges. But he noted that his unit saw a troubling trend of defendants complaining early during their prosecution that drugs had been planted on them by Watts and his officers.
The 15 men, who had 18 convictions connected to Watts and his officers, join five others whose drug-related convictions connected to the officers that were previously overthrown. All the men were African-American and received sentences ranging from probation to nine years in prison.
Joshua Tepfer, the lead attorney representing the 15 men in the case, said police ignored complaints by residents about Watts and his officers.
One petitioner who had has conviction overturned, Leonard Gipson, 36, alleged that it was common knowledge in Ida B. Wells housing complex that Watts demanded payments from drug dealers and would plant drugs on men in the project — some who say they were not dealers — if they refused to pay him bribes.
He filed a complaint with the police department after he was arrested in 2003 and says Watts planted drugs on him. Four months later with charges still pending in the first arrest, he said Watts arrested him and planted drugs on him once again.
“Everybody knew if you’re not going to pay Watts, you were going to jail,” Gipson said.
In fact, Watts had been on the FBI’s radar for several years before he was finally arrested along with a junior officer Kallat Mohammed in 2012 after they were caught shaking down an FBI informant.
A September 2004 FBI report included portions of an interview by federal agents with an individual who alleged “Watts gets IBW (Ida B. Wells) drug dealers to pay him ‘to work’ (sell drugs) in the housing project. If the payments are made to Watts, he will in turn allow the drug dealers to continue to sell drugs.” The interview surfaced as a result of 2014 federal lawsuit filed by a man who alleged he had been framed by Watts, according to court filings.
Tepfer says Watts and his crew made about 500 arrests from 2003 to 2008 that led to convictions. He said that he and his team are currently vetting as many as two dozen additional convictions of people who said they had drugs planted on them by Watts or his officers for refusing to pay them off.
“These convictions stick with you,” Tepfer said. “The time that you served you can’t get back. It affects your ability to get jobs, housing, to get public aid…These were poor, African-American impoverished communities in public housing that had no ability to trust law enforcement to help.”
Philip Thomas, 58, one of the petitioners who had his conviction overturned, said the anger still lingers over the more than six years he spent in prison on convictions that he says were the result of Watts and his officers planting drugs on him.
“The better years of my life were spent running from them and then in the penitentiary,” Thomas said.