In an extraordinary move, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx did something Monday which isn't often done in Chicago's criminal justice system.
Foxx's comments were directed to 18 men, whose convictions had just been thrown out by Chief Judge Leroy Martin. All 18 were arrested at the hands of notorious police sergeant Ronald Watts and his tainted tactical unit, which critics say ran roughshod and virtually unsupervised for a decade on Chicago’s South Side.
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"The system owes an apology to the men who stand behind us,” Foxx declared, after standing at the back of the court and shaking hands with each of the plaintiffs as they walked from the bench. "We know that what was happening with Sgt. Watts, and the way he ran his operation, is that there were many men and women who fell victim to his corrupt ways."
While even fellow officers pointed to corruption in the unit, only Watts and one of his officers, Kallatt Mohammed, were ever prosecuted for shaking down and framing residents of the Ida B. Wells housing project. Both went to prison.
"It's noteworthy to me who's not here, and that's the city and the Chicago Police Department," attorney Joshua Tepfer said after court. "(They) really owe the apology to these men and so many others, for letting this happen and covering it up for so long."
Indeed, residents of the Wells housing project had long argued that residents there were being unjustly targeted.
"They put cases on people who didn't cooperate with their corrupt schemes, took bribes, stole money and drugs from drug dealers, and really ruined the lives of dozens---maybe hundreds," attorney Joel Flaxman said. "These officers knew who they were, would go after them, and would frame them over and over again."
With Monday's exonerations, at least 42 individuals have now seen their convictions overturned. And the State’s Attorney’s office says it is examining many more.
"I believe in the interest of public safety in Cook County, we must have a criminal justice system that has integrity and credibility," Foxx said. "That means that we have to admit when things have gone wrong and actively work to fix it."
"Maybe this is a day of reckoning," attorney Sean Starr told reporters. "We hope that the officers that are on the street that see things happening-don't continue to play a complicit part in this. Speak up."