In a final push to revisit cases in which former Chicago police officer Ronald Watts was involved, the State Attorney’s office reversed course and agreed to vacate 44 convictions. Almost every case that was tied to the former officer has been reviewed. Many convictions have been vacated on appeal after allegations that torture and coercion led to convictions. Watts was also implicated in planting evidence.
Initially, prosecutors appeared ready to defend these cases due to the fact that other officers who were not involved with Watts also contributed to the conviction. However, the DA reversed course and decided to vacate the convictions on the basis that even his cursory involvement was enough to taint the case. A total of 100 convictions have been vacated against 88 defendants as part of an exoneration review of Watts’ cases. Three convictions not associated with exoneration efforts have also been vacated. According to the State Attorney’s office, 212 convictions have been vacated due to Watts’ criminal police work. Only a handful of convictions now remain before the court.
The officers, many of whom remain on the force, were accused of running a protection racket from a South Side public housing complex. They forced drug dealers to pay a “tax” and pinned bogus charges on anyone who did not.
The Exoneration Effort
Attorneys who were handling appeals for 88 inmates filed a joint exoneration effort with the State’s Attorney’s office asking that cases related to Ronald Watts be summarily thrown out. The DA has been reviewing these cases for decades but renewed efforts once attorneys filed petitions en masse. Initially, the State Attorney’s office, which had been investigating Watts for years, agreed in principle to review the cases. Eventually, the State Attorney’s office agreed that some of the convictions should be tossed, but doubled down on efforts to fight appeals in other cases, and were accused of dragging their feet by defense attorneys. After filing the petition en masse, prosecutors took the matter more seriously and today, all 100 convictions have been vacated.
Watts was arrested in 2012 for attempting to shake down a drug dealer who turned out to be an FBI agent. He pleaded guilty to federal charges and spent 22 months in prison. Watts was released in 2015.
Corruption linked exonerations are difficult to win in most cases. In this case, there were so many accusations leveled against a particular officer that a review was conducted. However, it was not until the FBI stepped in and trapped the officer that his cases were reviewed. Even that was not enough to get the DA to dismiss all the convictions. The burden of proof remains on the defendant to prove that an error was made. Responding to social pressure and police abuse headlines, the DA stopped fighting. If they continued, it would be on the victims to prove that Watts committed some form of malfeasance to gain their conviction.
Talk to a Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are facing criminal charges in the Chicago area, call David Freidberg today at (312) 560-7100 and we can begin preparing your defense immediately.