by Brooke Kaufman
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County, Illinois, prosecutors vacated 44 convictions related to convicted ex-Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts. In 2013, Watts pleaded guilty to stealing money from an FBI informant posing as a drug dealer in an undercover sting operation. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison and was released in 2015.
Though prosecutors initially filed paperwork opposing the dismissals—many of which were cases involving officers who “had not previously been impugned in Watts’ nefarious conduct,” according to Assistant State’s Attorney Catherine Malloy—they reversed course in court on April 22.
All 100 convictions for the 88 Watts accusers who were part of last year’s exoneration effort were formally vacated by Judge Erica Reddick. Three separate cases tied to Watts were also vacated.
As of April 22, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office agreed to dismiss 212 convictions related to Watts, according to a statement released by the office.
Attorneys for Watts’ accusers say the judge’s decision was “momentous” and that only a few Watts-related convictions have yet to be litigated. They also called for the city to discipline the officers involved, many of whom still serve on the force.
“There should be real actual consequences for lies that were told in court and in police reports,” attorney Josh Tepfer said, calling for criminal charges to be filed against the officers.
Herbert Anderson’s 2004 case was one of those dismissed by Judge Reddick. Anderson said that Watts and his team of officers planted drugs in his apartment before pinning a “phony case” on him. Anderson said he told officers he didn’t have drugs in his home, but when they searched a closet for a second time, they “pulled out drugs that hadn’t been in there when they searched the first time.”
“So they locked me up, and next thing you know, they said I was outside selling drugs by the schoolhouse,” Anderson said.
Prosecutors had previously agreed that 59 Watts-related convictions should be dismissed, but in March, they filed paperwork on the remaining cases arguing that the accusers hadn’t met the necessary burden of proof. The decision whether or not to dismiss the convictions was then sent before a judge.
Watts and his tactical team have been accused of “orchestrating a decade of terror” at the Ida B. Wells housing complex on the South Side, forcing residents and drug dealers to pay a “protection” tax under threat of bringing “bogus cases” against those who refused to do so.
According to the Tribune, Foxx’s office has spent years reviewing Watts-related convictions. In 2017, the office cleared out 18 such convictions and promised to conduct an ongoing assessment of similar cases.
Attorneys for the accusers have been presenting eligible cases to Cook County prosecutors for their review, but the relationship between the two soured last year. Tepfer, who works with the Exoneration Project, said in June 2021 that Foxx’s office was not conducting an aggressive review of Watts cases and was fighting to uphold flawed convictions. The next month, Tepfer and other attorneys launched the joint petition effort representing the 88 Watts accusers whose convictions were just dismissed.
Prosecutors, for their part, said the review was being conducted on an individual case-by-case basis to determine if they could “stand by” the convictions. Five convictions were dismissed in November, and dozens more were vacated earlier this year.
Had prosecutors not announced their change of course, the remaining cases would have gone to hearings before a judge.
Judge Reddick said earlier this year that Watts’ time on the force was “clearly shown to be a blight on the criminal justice system.”
Ron Owens, whose cases was dismissed April 22, said he spent 30 months on probation because of Watts.
“He messed up, people lied, and he did 22 months,” Owens said. “I did 30 months’ probation, I did more time than he did. And I don’t think that’s fair.”
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