Chicago Police

Even More Convictions Tied to Crooked Sgt. Watts Thrown Out. What About the Others?

Scores have now seen their cases overturned. But what about the ones where the state said "no"?

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

In a Cook County criminal courtroom Wednesday, prosecutors agreed to throw out the convictions of 15 more individuals who said they were framed by corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command.

"You know they fought to have a voice," said defense attorney Sean Starr. "They lived in public housing and they were disadvantaged from the start. And they were taken advantage of by Ronald Watts and his corrupt crew."

The proceedings have become eerily routine. At Wednesday's hearing, only two reporters sat in the gallery as defense lawyers and assistant state's attorney Carol Rogala ticked through the list of potential exonerees. In a few cases, the convicted individuals themselves joined by Zoom.

As the names were read, the state agreed to drop many of the cases. With others, they refused. But nothing grandiose was offered, and certainly no apologies.

"That takes care of the case against you," Judge Erica Reddick offered one man who had just seen his conviction overturned. "The case is dismissed."

Then on to the next one. And the next one. And the one after that.

Many of the convictions date back 20 years.

"I think the reality we have to recognize is these are people's lives," defense attorney Joel Flaxman said after court. "And the symbolism and importance to these people cannot be overstated."

The cases are virtually identical, with all of the individuals saying they were arrested on trumped-up charges by Watts and the tactical team he supervised at the former Ida B. Wells housing project. Those are allegations the state has agreed were valid.

Watts and one of his officers eventually went to prison. But undercover officers who worked the case insisted the entire team was corrupt.

None of the others were charged. Nearly all are still on the force, although most have been deemed so un-credible, they have been told they can never testify again in a criminal proceeding.

And that brings up a curious point. While at least 150 individuals have been exonerated and some 188 cases thrown out, the state has refused to vacate the convictions of scores of others. Rogala has not indicated how the state intends to proceed on those cases, only that she and her office will have more to say at a hearing next month.

"We're looking forward to putting on the evidence showing that every one of those petitioners are just as innocent as the cases we saw dismissed today," Flaxman said.

That raises the question of what evidence the state would present to the contrary. After all, it was the Cook County State's Attorney's office which informed the Watts officers in a letter that they were so untrustworthy they would never be called to a courtroom again.

"I don't think they have an answer for that," Starr said. "I think the state has some things to think about, and some decisions to make."

Defense attorney Joshua Tepfer from the Exoneration Project says he has at least one more case ready to go, and that he continues to hear from individuals who say they were convicted under similar circumstances. He said he couldn't speculate how long the drama would continue.

"We will do it as long as it takes," he said. "We are anxiously awaiting to see what the state files."

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