CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Tuesday threw out the felony drug convictions of six men who were framed by a disgraced former Chicago police sergeant’s team, bringing to 100 the number of overturned convictions linked to a years-long scheme to shake down residents of one of the city’s poorest communities.
The Cook County court hearing marked the latest chapter in a story of corruption that has been breathtaking in its scope in the four years since judges in Chicago started overturning drug cases of Black drug dealers and residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing project on the city’s South Side. They were convicted after they refused to pay then-Sgt. Ronald Watts and his tactical unit.
In a statement, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx suggested that it was impossible to overstate the damage that officers like Watts has done to Chicago and its police department. They have long struggled to win the trust of residents, particularly those in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“The seeds of distrust for our criminal justice system run deeply in communities most impacted by violence because of people in power like Sergeant Watts and his cronies who targeted and criminally preyed on these communities, leaving these neighborhoods feeling like their voice didn’t matter,” said Foxx, whose office moved to have the convictions vacated. “It erodes public safety when people suffer in silence because they’ve lost faith in law enforcement.”
Watts and another officer pleaded guilty in 2013 to stealing money from an FBI informant. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison. Upon his release, he reportedly moved out of Illinois.
As in many of the previous cases that have been tossed out, the stories of latest six men are those of people who were simply going about their lives when they were framed. They were nothing more dangerous than sitting outside, parking a car, or walking in a public housing hallway.
“What’s so striking is just how routine this all was,” said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney who has handled many of these cases. The officers “were just taking them from their everyday lives and ruining them.”
Foxx’s office declined to comment on other cases still under review, but Tepfer said at least 100 people who were convicted in drug cases that Watts was involved with are being reviewed by Foxx’s office.
Watts was involved with about 1,000 cases and perhaps 500 convictions over an eight-year period that ended in 2012, Tepfer said.
“We think we are just in the middle of this review,” he said.