CHICAGO – A judge overturned the drug convictions Friday of seven people who alleged they were framed by a disgraced former Chicago police sergeant and officers under his command, bringing the total number of people cleared in the same scandal to at least 50.
The hearing before Cook County Judge Leroy Martin Jr. followed a familiar pattern. In the past year, dozens of convicted felons have alleged they had drugs planted on them or were otherwise framed after refusing to pay ex-Sgt. Ronald Watts or his tactical team. In many cases, prosecutors discovered police misconduct that made them doubt the validity of the convictions, and judges have followed their recommendations to vacate them.
Since early 2016, there have been at least 50 felony drug convictions tied to Watts vacated. Fifteen were tossed in a single day in November 2017 during what was then the largest mass exoneration in memory in Chicago. That total was eclipsed two months ago when 18 men had their Watts-related convictions vacated on the same day.
The Cook County state attorney's office continues to investigate cases involving Watts. One defense attorney estimates that in the decade before Watts was arrested in 2012, he was involved in more than 500 convictions.
"We've got 100 more cases that we have already submitted to the state's attorney for review... that we believe they were framed," said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney for the University of Chicago's Exoneration Project, which is handling many of the cases. "And we still have a lot more to go through."
The six men and one woman — all of them black — have completed their sentences that ranged from probation to two years in state prison.
As in the previous cases, they were victims of Watts and his team that operated at a now-demolished public housing complex on the city's South Side. When they refused to pay Watts or his crew, they were arrested, sometimes after Watts or members of his crew stuffed drugs in their pockets.
Among the seven was a woman who said she was framed after she and her sister filed an official complaint against Watts' crew, and a man who said his two convictions in cases involving Watts and his team came after he refused to pay Watts.
Watts and a member of his team were arrested in 2012 and pleaded guilty the next year to stealing money from an FBI informant. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison.