This week, two more individuals arrested by an allegedly crooked Chicago tactical team had their convictions reversed.
The two men, 31 year old William Carter and 50 year old Bruce Powell, both alleged they had been framed by Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team who worked in the Ida B. Wells housing project on the South Side. The Watts team was accused by residents, and two undercover Chicago police officers, of shaking down and framing drug dealers for years. Watts and one of his officers were charged and convicted in Federal court. But the majority of his team remain on the force to this day.
With Carter and Powell’s exonerations, a total of five individuals with eight convictions among them have been reversed. But there are plenty more waiting to be heard.
“I believe every case that implicates these officers needs to be thrown out,” says defense attorney Joshua Tepfer. “We need a clean slate.”
Tepfer has already seen three clients exonerated. But the state is fighting efforts to free another of his clients, Anthony McDaniels.
Ironically, Tepfer notes, McDaniels was arrested by the very same officers who were on Powell’s arrest report----and the state agreed that arrest was tainted this week.
“These same group of officers, under Sgt. Watts, many of whom are still making arrests and testifying in court, were corrupt,” Tepfer exclaimed. “They framed individuals, they perjured themselves, they falsified police reports. Eight convictions have been vacated. Yet we know there are probably hundreds of arrests that they made, hundreds of convictions!”
Tepfer and other attorneys have argued that the officers’ collective work was so tainted, none of their arrests can be considered valid. And their call for all of the cases to be wiped out, is not as unprecedented as it seems.
“You can’t in good conscience maintain a conviction where there is that level of doubt about the honesty of the police officers involved,” says Philadelphia public defender Bradley Bridge. “It’s in everyone’s interest, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the judiciary, to get to the bottom of his in as rapid a fashion as possible.”
Philadelphia faced a virtually identical case----six officers, accused by a seventh, of stealing drugs and planting drugs on individuals, then testifying against them in court. The accusations were so troubling, that literally hundreds of cases have been cleared.
“On a single day, we had 158 convictions thrown out---on a single day!” Bridge said. “So far, with these seven officers, there are 922 convictions that we’ve vacated.”
And there’s a kicker to the Philadelphia story. All of those cases were thrown out, and prosecutors continue to examine others, even though six of the officers were actually acquitted.
There was enough evidence based on the charges against the officers to render infirm any of the convictions in which they were involved,” Bridge said. “That the officers were found not guilty was a mere footnote in analyzing what the situation is.”
Not everyone got a pass. Some cases were allowed to stand, if other officers were involved who could corroborate the charges. Bridge said he and prosecutors approached potential exonerees with two basic criteria: how integral the accused officers were to the prosecution, and whether the case occurred during the period of alleged corruption.
“There was a recognition that this was a substantial problem and needed to be addressed,” he said, “addressed forthrightly, and in a transparent fashion.”
Back in Chicago, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office pointed to this week’s reversals as evidence that they are examining the potentially tainted cases.
"The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office moved to vacate and dismiss the conviction and sentence in the Carter and Powell cases as part of our Conviction Integrity Unit’s ongoing review of Watts-related matters," a spokesman for State's Attorney Kim Foxx told NBC5 in a statement Tuesday evening. "We will continue to review these matters on a case-by-case basis and take appropriate action where we have concerns about the quality and sufficiency of the evidence."
But Tepfer points to the McDaniels case and argues Cook County should take a page from the Philadelphia model.
“How do you separate the good from the bad?” he asked. “You can’t!”