In an unprecedented move, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has vacated the convictions of 15 individuals who say they were framed by a crew of alleged rogue cops who operated for years on Chicago’s South Side.
The move, announced at a Thursday morning hearing, marks the largest single day of exonerations in Cook County history. It is the latest episode in the continuing scandal involving former Sgt. Ronald Watts and the tactical team he once headed at the former Ida B. Wells housing project.
"This is something that is rarely done in the country as far as I know where cases are looked at in mass because of some kind of law enforcement or official problem and in the interest of justice we have to do a clean sweep," said attorney Joshua Tepfer who brought the 15 cases.
He called the move "extraordinarily powerful."
“It represents a cosmic shift in the way we are handling police misconduct and wrongful convictions in this city,” he said. “The Cook County State’s Attorney made a lot of promises, and this is just an enormous, enormous step forward.”
Watts and one of his officers, Kallatt Mohammed went to prison themselves, but investigators have long contended that others in the unit, some of whom are still on the force, were also corrupt.
“The allegations are crystal clear,” said Tepfer. “They shook down citizens for bribes and planted evidence of drugs and contraband.” Tepfer explained “it was a day to day corrupt operation that these officers were engaged in on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said they have "zero tolerance for abuse, misconduct or any unlawful actions by those who are sworn to uphold our laws and protect our residents."
"The actions of Ronald Watts must be condemned by all of us, and we will continue our work to ensure the abuses of the past are never repeated in the future," the pair said in a joint statement Thursday.
“Since State’s Attorney Foxx took office, the Conviction Integrity Unit has been reviewing claims of wrongful convictions involving arrests made by Sergeant Watts and officers working under his command,” State’s Attorney spokesman Robert Foley told NBC5 Investigates. “This review has shown a pattern of narcotics arrests that raise serious concerns about the validity of the resulting convictions for these 15 defendants. Therefore, the State’s Attorney’s Office is vacating the convictions.”
Among those whose convictions were vacated was Leonard Gipson, who said he was jailed by Watts and his officers on at least three different occassions.
"I would never pay them, so Watts always told me, 'If you’re not going to pay me I’m going to get you,'" Gipson said.
Gipson said he reported the incidents, but "nothing happened." Now, he feels like a new man.
"I feel like a baby, a brand new baby," he said. "I don’t have a background- nothing on me."
Tepfer believes the impact of the move will have a lasting effect.
“I think that it’s just extraordinarily meaningful for this community that we’re finally trying to repair that damage,” he said. “That’s how you build police trust in those communities."
Mark Rotert, director of the Conviction Integrity Unit for the state's attorney's office, agreed.
"What happened in court this morning obviously is significant...," he said. "The significance I attached to it is I'd like it to be one message of what I think would be many messages to the people of this county. Tell them that they can and should trust and work with the criminal justice system to make this county a better place."