Dozens of convictions vacated in final push to drop cases connected to convicted former Chicago police sergeant

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Cook County prosecutors on Friday reversed course and agreed that 44 convictions related to convicted ex-Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts should be thrown out.

Prosecutors initially filed paperwork opposing the effort to dismiss those cases, many of which involved officers who “had not previously been impugned in Watts’ nefarious conduct,” Assistant State’s Attorney Catherine Malloy said in court Friday.

But upon further review, prosecutors decided that simply the potential of possible interference by Watts “raises concerns about the integrity of these cases,” Malloy said.

Judge Erica Reddick formally vacated the convictions Friday, meaning that all 100 convictions for the 88 Watts accusers involved in last year’s expansive joint exoneration effort have been dismissed. Three other Watts-related cases that were not part of last year’s effort also were vacated Friday when prosecutors said they would not oppose their dismissal.

As of Friday, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has agreed to throw out 212 convictions related to Watts, according to a statement from the office.

Over a series of hearings in recent months, prosecutors agreed that 59 convictions should be thrown out. But last month they filed paperwork on most of the remaining cases arguing that Watts’ accusers could not meet their burden of proof, and called for hearings so a judge could decide whether to dismiss the convictions.

Watts and his team of tactical officers have been accused of orchestrating a decade of terror at the now-razed Ida B. Wells public housing complex on the South Side, systematically forcing residents and drug dealers alike to pay a “protection” tax and putting bogus cases on those who refused to do so.

The recent hearings are a response to an expansive joint effort last summer by attorneys for 88 people with 100 Watts-related convictions, who filed petitions en masse asking that those cases be thrown out.

That effort represented a significant change in the way Watts’ cases have been handled at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

Foxx’s office has been reviewing Watts-related convictions for years. In 2017, they announced the county’s first-ever mass exoneration, clearing out 18 Watts-related convictions and promising an ongoing assessment of similar cases.

Attorneys for the accusers have been presenting potentially eligible cases to Cook County prosecutors for their review, and until last year, petitioners’ attorneys and prosecutors had presented a largely united public front.

Attorney Joshua Tepfer, who represents dozens of Watts accusers, said in June that Foxx’s office was not adequately following through on its promises of an aggressive review of Watts’ cases and was fighting to uphold convictions that he maintained are fatally flawed.

The next month, Tepfer and other accusers’ attorneys launched the joint petition effort representing 88 Watts accusers.

It was a bold move, seemingly intended to force Cook County prosecutors to announce a decision on the cases after prosecutors’ ongoing review of such convictions had, in the view of some Watts accusers’ attorneys, stalled out.

Prosecutors said they were committed to reviewing each case on an individual basis to determine if they can stand by the convictions. Five were thrown out in November, and dozens more were vacated earlier this year.

Until prosecutors announced Friday that they had changed course, the remaining cases potentially were headed to hearings at which a judge would determine if the convictions would stand.

Reddick, who has presided over the recent hearings, said from the bench earlier this year that the Watts era was “clearly shown to be a blight on the criminal justice system.”

When Watts was finally caught, in 2012, it was on relatively minor federal charges of shaking down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI agent. Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed both pleaded guilty, and Watts received 22 months in prison. He was released in 2015.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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April 22, 2022 at 12:13PM

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