by Chris Zoukis
Cook County, Illinois Chief Criminal Judge LeRoy K. Martin tossed the convictions of 15 criminal defendants on November 16, 2017 because the cases were linked to disgraced former Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts.
All of the men whose cases were overturned claimed that they had been framed by Watts, who went to federal prison in 2013 for stealing money from an FBI informant. Joshua Tepfer, who represented the 15 defendants told the Chicago Tribune that he expects to see more charges dropped and convictions overturned, as Watts and his crew of cops made over 1,000 arrests, leading to more than 400 possibly tainted convictions. Tepfer and his team at the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project are reviewing the cases.
"It needs to be investigated and vetted about how many of those are appropriate to overturn," Tepfer said. "We are very much in the process of doing that."
Tepfer noted that the November 16, 2017 move by State's Attorney Kim Foxx to drop 15 cases at once marked the first mass exoneration in Cook County history. He said that such a rare event is a sign of real problems in the Chicago law enforcement apparatus.
"It's an extraordinary sign of what's going on in this county and this city to have a ... crucial law enforcement entity take this step and overturn all these convictions in recognition of a systemic problem of police corruption," he said.
Mark Rotert, who heads the State Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, said that the government couldn't allow the 15 cases to stand in the face of so much evidence that Watts was routinely planting evidence and filing false reports.
"In these cases, we concluded, unfortunately, that police were not being truthful and we could not have confidence in the integrity of their reports and their testimony," Rotert said. "So in good conscience, we could not see these convictions stand."
The hearing in which the cases were tossed came in the midst of a three day exoneration spree in Cook County. Two days before the hearing, 66-year-old Arthur Brown was released after spending 29 years in prison on a double murder conviction obtained in a manner that county prosecutors now say raises "deep concerns." The day before the hearing, Jose Maysonet, 49, was released after serving 27 years for a double murder because four retired detectives asserted their Fifth Amendment rights when asked questions about Maysonet's confession.
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot said that seeing four Chicago police officers take the Fifth to avoid testifying under oath about their official actions is a "horrible, unacceptable circumstance that must be addressed immediately."
"All of the efforts that we are trying to undertake to reform the police department and bridge the gap between police and the community will be negatively affected if officers who commit crimes and admit to it are able to walk away with impunity," said Lightfoot.
Meanwhile, according to the Chicago Tribune, at least seven of the officers who were part of Watts' crew are still on the force. One of them has been promoted to sergeant, and one was recently found by a jury to have shot a teen in the back without justification.
Sources: www.chicagotribune.com, https://chicago.suntimes.com.
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