This week, 14 men with drug convictions related to those cases were exonerated — four of them Wednesday and 10 on Monday. With those exonerations, the cases of 63 men and women have been vacated because of the involvement of Sgt. Ronald Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed, lawyers for the 14 men said.
“It is a stain on the city,” said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, which has represented about half of the people who were exonerated.
“One thing that goes without saying is the reason they were covered up is they were viewed as a disposable people who live in the housing projects,” he said. “Nobody cared. Nobody believed them.”
Robert Foley, a spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney, said Tuesday in an email that the state’s attorney’s office would continue to review the matters on a case-by-case basis.
The arrests of Watts and Mohammed came after FBI and Chicago Police Department investigators recruited an informant to tell the two law enforcement officers that the informant was carrying the $5,200 for a drug trafficker, a statement from the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois said at the time of their arrest in 2012.
The two officers took the money and then paid the informant $400 “for allowing them to steal the drug proceeds” in 2011, the statement said. “Who always takes care of you?” Watts told the informant, according to the statement.
After their arrests, Watts and Mohammed were charged with theft of government funds. Mohammed entered a plea agreement in 2012 and was sentenced to 18 months, and Watts pleaded guilty in 2013 and was sentenced to 22 months, according to Joseph Fitzpatrick, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District.
A lawyer for Watts and representatives for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability were not immediately available for comment Wednesday; the Chicago Police Department and a lawyer for Mohammed declined to comment.
But people who had been arrested by Watts and Mohammed took note. They petitioned to vacate the convictions that had resulted from Watts’ and his team’s arrests years before.
“A lot of those convictions then fell by the wayside,” said James Graham, a lawyer who represented Mohammed at the time he took the plea deal.
The Exoneration Project and another Chicago-area lawyer, Joel Flaxman, worked to vet cases of convicted men and women who said they were innocent of the charges imposed on them by members of the team led by Watts and who had filed misconduct complaints against the officers.
Once vetted, their cases were turned over to Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. In November 2017, the state’s attorney’s office said it filed the first of its motions to vacate the convictions of people based on concerns regarding allegations of misconduct of the arresting officers, including Watts. In subsequent statements on exonerations, Kimberly Foxx, the state’s attorney, linked additional exonerations to “the misconduct” of the officers.
“We found a pattern of misconduct by Watts and other officers in these cases, which caused our office to lose confidence in the initial arrests and validity of these convictions,” Foxx said last year. “May the defendants, who we now believe were victims, find a path forward in healing and justice.”
Leonard Gipson, whose convictions were among the first vacated in 2017, said Wednesday that he had spent time incarcerated in 2003 and in 2007 after being charged with delivering crack and heroin.
“The biggest impact was it took a lot of time away from my kids growing up,” he said, speaking of his children, who are now 18 and 16. “I missed out on so much time in their life. And I don’t think it is really possible to make up that time.”
On Monday and Wednesday, Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. of Cook County, during hearings in Chicago, granted further motions and vacated the convictions of the 14 men.
“The floodgates opened of people coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘Hey, it happened to us,'” Flaxman said.
It is not clear how many more convictions will be challenged. Some people sought exonerations after their sentences had been served, while others are still in prison, Tepfer said. About 15 police officers who had worked on Watts’ team were put on desk duty, but the Chicago Police Department declined to comment Wednesday.
“There is a ton to unpack,” he said. “We are going to be doing this for years.”