On Thursday, the state basically agreed, asking a judge to dismiss the case which put Baker behind bars in 2005. And roughly eight hours later, he walked out of the prison in downstate Robinson, four hours south of Chicago.
“Good to be free,” Baker told NBC5 as he strode through the prison’s open door. “I guess slow justice is better than no justice!”
It was a long time coming. Baker argued at his 2006 trial that Sgt. Ronald Watts and members of his South Side tactical team framed him when he refused to pay a bribe at the Ida B. Wells public housing project. Six years later, it was Watts and a second officer, Khalatt Mohammed, who faced federal charges for shaking down drug dealers in the very same neighborhood.
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“This was an egregious frame up, there’s no other way to put it,” said his attorney, Joshua Tepfer. “Ben Baker was framed by a corrupt group of Chicago Police officers. Many of those officers remain on the force. Some have been promoted.”
Indeed, investigative reports show that Watts unit previously been the subject of allegations of rampant corruption. Two police officers, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, said they worked undercover on the investigation of the Watts team, and believed the corruption went far beyond the two who eventually faced charges. Spalding and Echeveria currently have their own lawsuit pending in Federal court, charging they were ostracized and punished for making the allegations.
And Tepfer, an attorney for The Exoneration Project, says reports he obtained from the FBI and the Independent Police Review Authority reveal longtime suspicions about the Watts crew, some predating Baker’s arrest.
“Here we are with an example of a systemic problem of Chicago law enforcement,” he said. “And a code of silence that has had unknowable collateral damage.”
Standing outside the prison Thursday night, Baker pointed to the irony that the officers who put him in jail found themselves behind bars a few years later.
“They was investigating these officers at the time I was taking the stand, but they chose to say their credibility was more important than mine,” he said. “I didn’t know he was investigated. But I knew he was dirty.”
Indeed, Tepfer echoed his client’s argument, that it appeared the system chose to look the other way.
“All of the citizen complaints (about the officers) are accurate and credible,” he said. “This was a group of cops who were running a criminal enterprise.”
After Tepfer filed a motion on Baker’s behalf in December, it took Cook County prosecutors only a month to agree to vacate his conviction.
“The conviction’s tainted,” said Fabio Valenti, the Chief of Criminal Prosecutions. “Now it’s a fact that (Watts) is a dirty police officer.”
Valenti stopped short of suggesting that the other members of Watts’ crew should face renewed scrutiny.
“The other officers involved in this arrest, my understanding is they have been investigated,” he said. “And were never implicated in any behavior like this.”
Outside court Thursday, Baker’s jubilant sister Gale Anderson rejoiced at his exoneration.
“He didn’t win the Powerball, but he did better,” she said. “He won a date to come home!”
As he strode to a waiting car for the four hour drive to Chicago, Baker said he was looking forward to his mother’s oxtail soup, her cornbread, and a “real bath—in a tub.”
“I’ve got grandkids I haven’t held yet,” he said. “I’m just ready to get home.”