A judge on Tuesday threw out the felony drug convictions of six men who were framed by a disgraced former Chicago police sergeant's team, bringing to 100 the number of overturned convictions linked to a years-long scheme to shake down residents of one of the city's poorest communities.
Attorney Joshua Tepfer called the charges against them “one of the biggest scandals in Chicago police history.”
All of the cases were connected to disgraced former Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts. He was convicted, along with Kallatt Mohammed, of running a protection racket that preyed on hundreds of vulnerable young men on the city’s South Side.
Over the past three years, the Exoneration Project has been working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to reverse those cases.
“Every time we do one of these mass exonerations, there is a pit in my stomach,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said. “There is relief that we are able to right the wrongs of the past, and sorrow that this is the state we find ourselves in…that for so long Sgt. Watts and his crew were able to terrorize and criminalize a community.”
Tepfer told Judge LeRoy Martin, Jr., the cases followed a similar pattern. Watts and his crew would single out men who had had previous contact with law enforcement at the now demolished Ida B. Wells Housing complex. They would shake them down for money or drugs. When the men failed to comply, they would often be beaten and arrested on trumped up charges or planted evidence.
Jermain Morris was one of those men who on Tuesday saw his conviction overturned. He was arrested on Christmas Eve in 2004.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Morris said. “I had plans on taking my girl out and all that went down the drain in less than a second.”
He said the conviction cost him his job and has made it difficult to find another one.
“People look at you different now that you have that on your background,” he said.
Along with Morris, Antwan Bradley, David Holmes, Shaun James, Derrick Mapp, and Bryant Patrick saw their convictions dismissed Tuesday morning. For James, this was his second Watts-related conviction to be vacated.
Following their 2013 federal convictions, Watts served 22 months and Mohammed served 18 months. No other officer has faced charges.
Tepfer said other members of their alleged crew have escaped prosecution. Some, he said, are still Chicago police officers.
“Taxpayers have paid more than $5.6 million now supporting their legal fees," Tepfer said. “They cannot make arrests. They cannot do what police officers do because the states attorney’s office doesn’t trust them.”
The Exoneration Project said there are still more than 100 similar cases of police misconduct it plans to turn over to the States Attorney’s office.
While the job is far from over, Foxx said progress on restoring faith in the justice system is being made.
“Even when things go wrong, “she said, “the system will work to correct itself.”
In overturning their convictions, Martin said justice is being done.
“To get these matters resolved, that’s what’s important,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, we have gotten results.”