Seven members of a former Chicago Police tactical team have been placed on administrative duty, after a Cook County judge threw out the convictions of 15 individuals, which even the State’s Attorney’s office said were tainted cases.
Six officers and one sergeant were taken off the street late Thursday, pending a police department review of the roles they played in the cases of 15 men, vacated earlier in the day by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
“In these cases, we concluded, unfortunately, that the police were not being truthful,” Mark Rotert, the director of the conviction integrity unit said after court. “We couldn’t have confidence in the integrity of their reports and testimony.”
Moments earlier, Cook County judge Leroy Martin threw out the felony drug convictions of the 15 men, who all say they were locked up for no other reason except that they refused to pay Sgt. Ronald Watts.
“I’m not a historian,” defense attorney Joshua Tepfer said, “but as far as I know, this is the first mass exoneration in the history of the county, perhaps the state.”
Watts and one of his officers, Kallatt Mohammed eventually went to prison themselves. But the remainder of the tactical team went uncharged, and many of the officers remain on the force. Those were the officers removed from duty Thursday evening.
"Everyone knew if you're not going to pay Watts, you were going to jail. That's just the way it was going,'' said Leonard Gipson, 36, who had two convictions tossed out.
The practice, they recalled, was all the more chilling because the officer was so open about it.
"Watts always told me, `If you're not going to pay me, I'm going to get you.' And every time I ran into him, he put drugs on me,'' he said. ``I went to prison and did 24 months for Watts, and I came back home and he put another case on me.''
He and others said there was nothing anyone could do about it. They watched Watts and his crew continue to extort drug dealers and residents, a practice that lasted for years, despite complaints to the police department and statements made during court hearings.
Finally, in 2013, Watts and another officer pleaded guilty to stealing money from an FBI informant, but Watts' sentence of 22 months was shorter than those being handed out to the men he framed.
“Myself and the Chicago Police Department, we just have no tolerance for that type of behavior,” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson insisted to reporters following a luncheon appearance. “You will all be hearing something from me again soon, but I just want you to know we are taking a hard look at the events that unfolded.”
While a formal investigation was welcomed by those who have long been critical of Watts and his crew, complaints had raged for years about the tactical team. Two undercover officers publicly alleged that the great majority of the team was corrupt.
Those two officers, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, sued the city alleging retaliation for the work they had done uncovering corruption in the case. Last summer on the eve of trial, the City of Chicago settled with the two officers for $2 million.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys suggested that Thursday's order may be just the beginning.
The University of Chicago's Exoneration Project is examining another 12 to 24 cases, but the problem is much larger because Watts was involved in about 1,000 cases and perhaps 500 convictions over eight years.
Chicago has paid more than a half billion dollars to settlepolice misconduct cases in a little more than a decade.
Tepfer would not discuss what the men might do next, but it is almost a certainty that at least some of them will sue the city and the police department. He offered a hint about what those lawsuits might contend.
These convictions stick with you,'' he said. ``You can't get back the time you served. It affects your ability to get jobs, housing. You get thrown off of public aid with a felony conviction.''