NBC 5 Investigates

Prosecutors Will Fight Efforts to Overturn Convictions of Dozens of Alleged Victims of Corrupt Sgt. Ronald Watts

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In the continuing saga of the largest scandal in Chicago Police Department history, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office dug in Tuesday on the convictions of nearly 40 individuals who said they were framed by corrupt Sgt. Ronald Watts and the officers he supervised at the former Ida B. Wells housing project.

Previously, 133 former Wells residents have successfully petitioned the court to throw out a total of 169 drug convictions racked up at the hands of Watts and his crew---most of those petitions un-opposed by Cook County prosecutors.

What remained unspoken in today’s filing was why those same prosecutors are now differentiating the convictions of 39 more individuals from the scores they have previously agreed were almost certainly the victims of trumped-up arrests perpetrated by the officers.

The primary reason given in the government petition filed Tuesday night was that those seeking relief had not made their requests in a timely manner. Prosecutors cited a two-year statute of limitations for filing claims that date back, in most cases, for more than 15 years.

They did note, however, an exception lies if a petitioner can show that he was under a legal disability or that the grounds for relief were fraudulently concealed from him.

Plus, prosecutors argue, those asking to have their cases thrown out had an obligation to do so quickly after becoming aware of the allegations of wrongdoing.

“The ultimate question before the Court is whether the new evidence places the trial evidence in a different light, and undermines the Court’s confidence in the judgment of guilt,” prosecutor Carol Rogala wrote. “The People deny that petitioner can meet this burden.”

In the filing, Rogala never explains why these cases are deemed any different than those which even State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has previously said deserved relief. 

“This is a sorrowful moment, knowing these individuals will never get that time back in their lives,” Foxx said following a mass exoneration of 19 former Watts suspects last month.  “Sgt. Watts believed the people who lived there had lesser value and wouldn’t be believed.”

Defense attorneys have long noted that dozens of those arrested by Watts and his team made “instant outcries” against what they said were phony arrests that went unheeded by authorities at the time.  Officials in the State’s Attorney’s office have not disputed that a raft of false arrests took place at the hands of Watts and his crew. 

The convictions of 19 more people whose cases were connected to disgraced Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts were overturned Tuesday, with dozens more up for review in the coming weeks. NBC 5 Investigates' Phil Rogers reports.

Indeed, while Watts and one other officer on his team were convicted and served federal prison terms, most of the remaining officers from his tactical unit have been told they are so tainted they will never be allowed to testify again in a Cook County case.

And therein lies the rub: if defense attorneys are successful in pressing the current cases to full hearings before Presiding Judge Erica Reddick, prosecutors will seemingly be hard-pressed to fight those cases without the testimony of the arresting officers, who were previously, almost without exception, the state’s only witnesses.

“The state has requested that these cases proceed to an evidentiary hearing,” defense attorney Joshua Tepfer told NBC5 in a statement Tuesday evening. “If that is what the court orders, we are very prepared to present the testimony from the many, many victims of this notoriously corrupt unit of Chicago Police.”

Defense attorney Joel Flaxman said he was disappointed that the State’s Attorney’s office was choosing to “defend false convictions tied to these corrupt officers.”

“These false convictions are no different than the many other false convictions the State’s Attorney has agreed to dismiss,” Flaxman said.  “The new filings give no explanation for why these cases should be treated differently, and there is no explanation.”

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