Sgt. Ronald Watts

Cook County Prosecutors Signal Agreement on Overturning More Than 50 Watts Convictions, Attorney Says

Should the judge rule in favor of overturning those cases, it would mark the largest mass exoneration in Cook County history

Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has signaled that it plans to agree with the effort to overturn more than 50 convictions against dozens of people with cases connected to disgraced Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, setting up what may become the largest mass exoneration in Cook County history, an attorney for those individuals said Friday.

Eighty-three people currently have petitions before the court to overturn a total of 95 convictions connected to Watts, who went to prison over his team’s shakedowns and framing of residents at the former Ida B. Wells housing project for nearly a decade.

More than 100 convictions related to the Watts scandal have already been overturned in recent years, including 23 cases against 18 people on the same day in 2018, which was Cook County’s largest-ever mass exoneration.

But a mass exoneration with more than double those numbers may be imminent, according to attorney Joshua Tepfer, who represents those petitioning for exoneration. He said the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Friday indicated plans to formally agree on overturning more than 50 of those remaining 95 convictions in a status hearing next week.

Tepfer said the state’s attorney’s office discussed its intent on those petitions while in court on another matter Friday, with a status hearing in the Watts cases set for Tuesday, at which point the office is expected to inform the court of its position. A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney said Friday that the office is “unable to comment on pending litigation.”

NBC 5 investigates the code of silence scandal that has plagued the Chicago Police Department as prosecutors on Thursday dropped the convictions of five more men tied to corrupt ex-Sgt. Ronald Watts. NBC 5 Investigates' Phil Rogers reports.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, the judge will set dates to issue rulings on those petitions, Tepfer said. It’s not clear exactly how many of the 83 individuals will be impacted, only that the state’s attorney’s office indicated it will be more than 50 of the 95 convictions, Tepfer said.  

“When this has happened previously, judges have agreed to our requested relief I think every time, so I'm expecting hopefully the same,” Tepfer said, calling the move “a really big deal.”

“When you just take a huge step back, I mean, we're talking about numbers and, you know, vague things but I mean, 160 times now, it's acknowledged that this incredibly corrupt group of police officers framed innocent people, sent them to prison, you know, we're talking for hundreds of years of wrongful prison sentences,” he said. “It's just mind-boggling and sad. And it's great that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office is willing to engage in this process to rectify these injustices.”

The status hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday before Judge Erica Reddick.

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