Judge clears 7 wrongfully convicted on drug charges between 2002-2008
50 cleared so far in growing scandal involving corrupt ex-Chicago cop
More than a decade ago, Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew “bumrushed” KennethHicksand demanded to know, “Where the drugs at?”
“They tried to figure out how much money I got on me,” Hicks told reporters Friday. “But I had nothing for them.”
Hicks alleges Watt’s crew then pinned a phony drug charge on him in 2007. He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Long released from prison, Hicks watched Friday as a measure of justice took place at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
With Watts’ credibility shot because of a corruption conviction, Cook County prosecutors moved to throw out Hicks’ conviction as well as those of six others.
That brings the total of those cleared of wrongdoing because of the alleged misconduct of Watts and officers who worked under him to a staggering 50. And that number is likely to continue to rise, said attorney Joshua Tepfer, who represents many of the exonorees.
“It’s an enormous, enormous number,” Tepfer said of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago. “It is due to the fact that (Watts) was allowed to run roughshod over this community for a decade.”
All seven people exonerated Friday have completed their sentences. Their drug charges had been brought between 2002 and 2008. One of those cleared was a woman.
The claims of Watts’ accusers follow a familiar pattern — that Watts or officers under his command typically pinned bogus charges on them when they refused to pay him protection money.
In case after case, when Watts’ targets complained — to the Police Department or in court— judges, prosecutors and internal affairs investigators all believed the testimony ofWatts and other officers over their accusers, records show.
“(Watts) just came out of nowhere,” recalled Deon Willis, who had two drug convictions reversed Friday. “If you don’t do what he tells you to do, if you don’t give him what he wants, I mean there’s no way out.”
The crew had the area around the now-razed Ida B. Wells public housing complex on the South Side on pins and needles, Willis told reporters.
“We had to come out of our hallways, out of our apartments, peekingoutthe doors, making sure they’re not riding up the street,” he said. “It was hard. It was hard, but nowit’s over.”
Last year, the Police Department reassigned 15 officers who worked with Watts over the years to paid desk duty pending an inter- nal investigation that is still underway.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office — whose review led to the dismissal of the convictions Friday — said it stopped calling as witnesses 10 of the officers, citing concerns about their credibility.
“Where’s the accountability? What’s next? We’ve got 50 (people exonerated) now,” Tepfer told reporters after Friday’s hearing.
The cases highlighted a broken system of police discipline that allegedly protected corrupt officers and punished those who tried to expose the corruption.
Two Chicago police officers who alleged they were blackballed for trying to expose Watts’ corruption years ago won a $2 million settlement in their whistleblower lawsuit.
Despite mounting allegations, Watts continued to operate for years amid a lengthy police internal affairs probe as well as investigationsby the state’s attorney’s office and the FBI, according to court records.
Watts’ nearly decadelong run of corruption ended in 2012 when he and another memberof his team, Officer Kallatt Mohammed, were convicted for shaking down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI informant.
Watts wound up being sentenced to 22 months in prison.
After his release, Watts moved to Las Vegas, records show. He has made no public comment about the allegations against him. In a recent response in one of the pending lawsuits involving him, Watts invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 40 times, court records show.
The scandal— one of the biggest to hit the Chicago Police Department in decades— hascometo symbolize the breakdown of trust between police and the communities they are supposed to serve, particularly high-crime areas populated by African-American and Hispanic residents.
Attorney Joshua Tepfer, left, and Deon Willis, who served prison time on drug charges, speak Friday after convictions against seven people were thrown out.