Today, Cook County Chief Judge Leroy Martin dismissed the convictions of 18 people alleged to have been framed by former Chicago police Sergeant Ronald Watts and his tactical unit. Today’s mass exoneration, which involves drug cases brought between 2003 and 2008, brings the total number of Watts-related exonerations to 42.
Today’s decision arrives one year after the convictions of 15 men, who Watts and his team similarly framed, were overturned—marking the first mass exoneration in Cook County history. The men accused Watts of extorting, framing, threatening and harassing them, along with other residents of the Ida B. Wells housing project.
“We continue to hear that many of these arrests were purely conjured,” said Mark Rotert, the Chief of the State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. “They were basically arresting people and framing them or were claiming that they were involved in drug offenses that either didn’t occur or didn’t occur the way that those police officers said.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx filed a motion to overturn the latest convictions as part of a review of cases handled by Watts’ team. The review, conducted by Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit, has already resulted in 24 exonerations. Dozens of other cases tied to Watts remain under review.
“We could not stand behind the integrity of these cases because of the behavior of Mr. Watts,” Foxx told reporters after today’s hearing. “When things have gone wrong, we have to actively work to fix them.”
In 2012, Watts and ex-officer Kallatt Mohammed were federally indicted after attempting to rob someone they believed was a drug courier but was actually an FBI informant. Watts pled guilty and was sentenced to 22 months in prison.
Less than one year ago, 15 officers who worked under Watts were demoted to desk duty. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said they would no longer use the testimony of any officers linked to Watts.
After leaving the courthouse, Joshua Tepfer, an Exoneration Project attorney who represents 12 men exonerated earlier today, told reporters, “We’re extraordinarily pleased. This type of thing doesn’t happen across the country very often…This crew of officers was just dirty and they were really dirty for a long time. These are just made-up cases. The victims are these men.”