In an unprecedented development, 15 men convicted of felonies years ago in Cook County were exonerated Thursday morning based on evidence that they had been framed by members of a corrupt Chicago police squad headed by former Sergeant Ronald Watts.
The hearing in Courtroom 101 of the George Leighton Criminal Court Building was as brief as it was historic: It took Presiding Judge Leroy Martin only about ten minutes to sign orders exonerating the men of convictions they have lived with for years. Twelve of the 15 men were present in court.
The mass exoneration came after the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit joined lawyers from the Exoneration Project’s motion to vacate 18 drug convictions for the 15 men, who had served sentences that varied from probation to prison time. Several of the men who were in court Thursday later described living with the consequences of having drug convictions on their records.
“We are extraordinarily grateful to the State’s Attorney’s Office,” attorney Josh Tepfer of the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project told Martin at the hearing.
At a press conference afterward, assistant state’s attorney Mark Rotert told reporters, “In these cases we concluded that unfortunately the police were not being truthful and we couldn’t have confidence in the integrity of their reports and their testimony and so in good conscience we could not see these convictions stand.”
Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed were sentenced to 22 months and 18 months in federal prison, respectively, in 2012 and 2013 after stealing drug money from an FBI informant. There are numerous allegations that Watts and Mohammed demanded payoff from people where they patrolled at the Ida B. Wells public housing project, and framed their victims on drug charges when they didn’t get money.
Leonard Gipson, 36, who was convicted three times on drug charges, and served four years behind bars between 2003 and 2009, said at the press conference that Watts planted drugs on Gipson every time he saw him because Gipson refused to pay him off.
And when Gipson called the internal police agency that in those days investigated allegations of misconduct, the Office of Professional Standards, he received no help. “Right now, I feel like I can start over and do what I want to do,” said Gipson, who had struggled to get jobs because of the convictions on his record.
Tepfer said many of the exonerees, like Gipson, had reported the corruption and abuse or had testified about it in court, but were not believed. According to Tepfer, Watts was involved in around 1,000 arrests between 2004-2012, resulting in around 500 convictions.
Philip Thomas, 58, served more than six years in prison total after being repeatedly framed by Watts’ squad, he said at the press conference after winning exoneration.
“The whole crew, they all victimized me for years. There was no way to get away from them. They would plant drugs on you, they would beat you,” he said. “Now I have vindication.”
Tepfer said Thomas represented himself in one of his trials, cross examining police officers Ellsworth Jones and Alvin Smith, because the public defenders representing him didn’t feel that they could bring up the defense that he was framed.
The effort did not work: “Talking about it didn’t do any good, because I was still convicted,” said Thomas.
Rotert was named to head the State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit in July by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who took office last December after running on a reform agenda.
He said each of the 15 cases were individually evaluated, and that his office would review additional cases that were brought to it.
In recent days Foxx’s office has been criticized for being slow to correct perceived injustices like that of Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton. DNA evidence shows that Coleman and Fulton likely didn’t commit a 1994 rape and murder, but they remain in prison while the state’s attorney’s office awaits more testing.
Rotert on Thursday called the process of reviewing past convictions “a very exacting process,” adding, “We have to deal with reading reports, reading transcripts, doing investigations. We’re doing that, and we have a lot to do.”
Thomas, Tepfer, and Gipson were adamant that Watts and Mohammed were not the only officers involved in the corruption, and that some of those officers who participated in Watts’ misconduct are still on the force today. The exonerees’ petition named seven officers directly involved with Watts’ corruption.
Rotert drew a distinction between reviewing “historic facts” and conducting new investigations into alleged misconduct. “To the extent that that should be done, you’re talking to the wrong person,” he said.
Update 11/17/17: The Conviction Integrity Unit has agreed to vacate the convictions of Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton. The men will be released pending a retrial, and could be home by Thanksgiving. It is possible that the State’s Attorney’s office will ultimately opt to drop the convictions altogether.