CHICAGO -- Nearly 50 more people will have their convictions thrown out after prosecutors in Chicago said Tuesday they're working to right the wrongs of a former police sergeant who framed or falsely accused over 100 poor residents of drug crimes.
A judge tossed 19 cases Tuesday, and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said her office will support vacating more convictions later this month, for a total of 54 convictions involving 48 people by Feb. 16. That will bring the total of vacated cases involving ex-Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew to 134 since Foxx took office in December 2016, she said.
Watts, a Black sergeant, led a team that for nearly a decade until 2012 planted drugs or falsely accused residents of a public housing complex and others of drug crimes unless they paid the officers off.
Residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing development on Chicago's South Side have told similar stories of being shaken down by Watts or others on his team after the officers stopped them as they walked through hallways or parked their cars. Many were convicted and sentenced to prison, lost jobs and their homes.
Foxx called Tuesday a “somber day,” and said her office's review of the cases is needed to restore trust in a city where too many people don't trust police and are unwilling to cooperate with them. Chicago's history of police misconduct and abuse and a justice system that for too long failed some residents — many of them Black and Hispanic — has contributed to high rates of crime that Chicago is experiencing today, she said.
“We were known as the false confession capital of the United States," Foxx said. “The integrity of our system requires that even when one of us in law enforcement goes afoul, the rest of the system must do its part to uphold truth and justice.”
Watts and another officer pleaded guilty in 2013 to stealing money from an FBI informant. Watts received a 22-month prison sentence.
In December, the police department acknowledged that 15 other officers associated with Watts and his unit were placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation. Foxx said Tuesday that her office does not call the officers involved in the Watts cases to testify in other prosecutions her office is handling.
Joshua Tepfer of The Exoneration Project, which has worked with scores of people convicted due to Watts and his crew, has said Watts was involved with perhaps 500 convictions in the eight-year period that ended in 2012.