Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts had a pretty sweet deal going for himself. For years, he and other officers tasked with policing a housing project on the city’s South Side routinely demanded cash from drug dealers in exchange for protection from arrest, and framed residents of the housing project by planting drugs on them. His reign of extortion drew to a close when he and another officer were arrested in 2012. Watts served 22 months in prison after his sentencing, and is now a free man.
Yet for years, Chicago law enforcement leaders did nothing to heal the lives that Watts and his cohort tore apart with their abuse of power. Some of Watts’ victims went to jail or prison, serving sentences secured by illegally obtained evidence. Once they were released, they couldn’t find work thanks to their wrongful criminal records.
In mid-November, 15 of those men made headlines when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx vacated their tainted drug convictions, all of which were tied to Watts and his cohort. The Conviction Integrity Unit in Foxx’s office determined that the convictions were based on false testimony and planted evidence — but only after Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago petitioned a judge in September to clear their names. The vacated convictions have been described as a first-of-its-kind “mass exoneration” in Cook County by wrongful conviction experts.
“Everyone knew…if you’re not going to pay Watts, you’re going to jail,” 36-year-old Leonard Gipson, one of the 15 men, told reporters. “That’s just the way it was gonna go.” Gipson was convicted multiple times based on charges brought by Watts, and at one point spent two years in jail because of him.
Tepfer began representing men convicted on charges brought by Watts and his co-conspirators and investigating their cases when Foxx’s predecessor Anita Alvarez was still in office. When Foxx took office in 2016, Tepfer said her office cooperated with him as he pursued relief for people charged by Watts. By December 2016, three convictions tied to Watts had been vacated. During that petitioning process, Tepfer obtained a spreadsheet from the DA’s office identifying “at least 1000 arrests during an eight year period that led to at least 500 convictions” in which Watts and his fellow officers were involved. After realizing the breadth of the misconduct, Tepfer moved to have several cases consolidated this year — those of 15 men who had already served their time, but still had a conviction on their record. But Foxx’s office pushed back throughout October and early November, arguing that procedurally, each case should be handled separately. As Tepfer prepared for a hearing scheduled for Nov. 16, he assumed until the day before the argument that it would be dedicated to the litigation against the consolidation.
“They called me the morning before and said they’d be dismissing all [of the] convictions,” said Tepfer. “I didn’t think I was persuading them at all, but it appears that they concluded they couldn’t have faith in these convictions either.”
The media jumped to praise Foxx for vacating the illegally-obtained convictions. But the spotlight on Foxx illuminates just how rare it is for prosecutors to dismiss charges or vacate convictions premised on police officers’ fabricated testimony, corruption, or illegal behavior.
“It is extraordinarily uncommon what [Foxx’s office] did, and they should be applauded,” Tepfer told In Justice Today. “The reality though, is that it should be done all the time. When there’s intentional and systemic law enforcement misconduct across cases, you have to go back and look at all those cases.”
“As a prosecutor’s office, inasmuch as we fight for public safety, we also recognize that we have to right wrongs and be willing to do that,” Foxx told the Tribune following the exonerations.
Not everyone agreed with Foxx that the fight for public safety entails righting past wrongs. Police officers took Foxx’s exonerations as a challenge. The day after her office announced the convictions would be vacated, she was chastised in a public letter from Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s police union, for “pander[ing] to the powerful anti-police movement in the city” and creating a “level of mistrust among police officers” that will discourage them from testifying. The letter could be read as a threat: without the testimony of officers, Foxx may struggle to secure future convictions.
But Graham’s letter fails to explain why vacating falsely obtained convictions would threaten law enforcement officers. If police and prosecutors’ goal is to protect and improve public safety, as is so often stated, then getting abusive police who frame innocent people off the street would seem to be in their interest. That the working relationship between DAs and police could be compromised by exonerating innocent people suggests that more is at play in Graham’s anger than the alleged quest for safety and justice.
Though Foxx’s actions are rare, she isn’t alone. A new generation of prosecutors shares Foxx’s commitment to vacating convictions or dropping charges based on police’s bad behavior. In July, 34 drug and gun charges were dismissed by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office after news surfaced that the charges relied on testimony from officers who allegedly planted drugs at a crime scene. In August, DA Gurbir Grewal of Bergen County, New Jersey dropped 8 cases brought against 17 defendants, all of whom were charged based on faulty, illegal police work. The same month, DA Kristen Barnebey of Aransas County, Texas made the surprising announcement that her office would no longer take cases brought by a local police department until its officers were better trained and educated, as In Justice Today’s Carimah Townes reported. These prosecutors appear to recognize that police misconduct isn’t just the police’s problem.
Tepfer of the Exoneration Project is investigating dozens of other casesinvolving the officers who worked with Watts, and WGNTV notes that as many as 7 other officers involved in their cases are still on the job. Foxx’s office has said it will continue to cooperate with Tepfer and review convictions based on charges from the indicted officers.
“These are not the only people this happened to,” said Tepfer. “These guys were working a decade with impunity. This is certainly not the end of it, and I’m working on bringing them more cases very, very soon.”