Eightly-eight (88) additional victims of former Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts on Tuesday, July 20, held a press conference where they vowed to have overturned 100 convictions, believed to be the largest number in Chicago history.
The 88 Black men and women formally announced plans to petition the Circuit Court of Cook County while gathered at 37th and South King Drive—the former site of the Ida B. Wells public housing complex. Many of the victims Watts and his team framed were residents of the housing project.
“The system did and has continued to fail these men and women,” said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with The Exoneration Project, who represents 60 of the 88 petitioners.
“Many of the victims identified in this petition have been waiting years for the State’s Attorneys’ acknowledgement that they, too, were innocent men and women framed by known corrupt officers. It is time for Ms. [Kim] Foxx to follow the lead of her progressive prosecutor counterparts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere and vacate all convictions connected to criminal police officers and rogue government actors. It is long past due.”
Lawyers for the victims said the petition will include over two hundred exhibits and thousands of pages documenting the decade-long reign of corruption by police on mostly Black housing project residents that only ended when Watts and one of his team members, Kallatt Mohammed, were federally indicted in 2012. During that decade, Watts and his team ran a “protection racket” that included planting evidence and fabricating charges while facilitating Watts’ own gun and drug trade.
The cases of the 88 victims are indistinguishable from 109 convictions that have already been tossed out. Those victims, later adjudicated as innocent, were sentenced collectively to over 274 years in prison.
“The harm to these individuals is impossible to overstate. Many were forced to plead guilty because they knew that no one would listen to the truth,” said Joel Flaxman, attorney at the Law Offices of Kenneth N. Flaxman P.C., who represents 28 of the 88 petitioners. “This petition leaves no doubt about the truth. These victims of Watts and his team deserve to be heard, and they deserve justice.”
The courts and city leaders have widely acknowledged the seriousness and scope of the Watts-led corruption. One Illinois court has referred to Watts and his team as a “criminal posse of corrupt cops.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called Watts “the Burge of our time,” referring to former Chicago Commander Jon Burge who for years physically tortured African-American men into giving false confessions.
Lawyers for the victims highlight the need for further accountability for Watts and his crew. Despite a lengthy investigation, the State’s Attorney has failed to take action on the Petitioners’ cases. Aside from Watts and one other member of his team, no officer connected to the team has faced criminal charges or even received any discipline for their role in the corruption. Most remain on the force. At least two have been promoted.
In March 2021, the city’s latest police oversight board—the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA)—announced that it had delivered its “first report of findings and recommendations to the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department” related to officers connected to the Watts-led corruption. City ordinance gives the Superintendent 90 days to review the report before any public release, which expired in mid-June. The city contin- ues to withhold the report.