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Former Ida B. Wells public housing residents exonerated Friday include (from left) Herbert Anderson, 64, Joey Fenton, 43, Tyrone Fenton, 48, and Gregory Dobbins, 44. Tyrone Fenton, a car salesman, credited his attorney for getting his 2008 conviction thrown out.

Chip Mitchell

In Cook County’s largest mass exoneration, a judge tosses 44 convictions tied to a corrupt cop

In an unprecedented sweep, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Friday ended months of what she termed “due diligence” and agreed with throwing out 44 convictions tied to corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.

It’s the largest mass exoneration in Cook County to date.

Presiding Criminal Division Judge Erica Reddick vacated the convictions, which stemmed from felony drug arrests of 42 people by a Watts-led tactical team at Ida B. Wells, a housing complex on Chicago’s South Side, between 2002 and 2008.

Tyrone Fenton, 48, was one of the exonerated men at Friday’s hearing. The car salesman credited his attorney for getting his 2008 felony conviction thrown out.

“Watts came into our neighborhood and terrorized our neighborhood, planting drugs on us,” said Fenton, who spent two years in prison for the case. “You can’t get those years back … Now I’m out, but it’s still hard to put your family back together.”

Friday’s hearing lifted the number of convictions reversed in the scandal to 213 and the exonerees to 172, according to a WBEZ review of court records.

“We welcome the state’s attorney taking this important step to provide justice to victims of this wrongdoing,” said attorney Joel Flaxman, who represents many of the exonerees.

All but three of the convictions vacated were included on a July petition in which civil rights attorneys asked for 100 cases to be thrown out. Foxx refused to go along with vacating them en masse, instead dropping charges in some cases and refusing in others.

“We want to do our due diligence as officers of the court to be able to say that, in fact, the persons were not guilty of the crimes for which they were accused,” Foxx told reporters in February.

That led to a volley of court filings in recent weeks in which Foxx’s office argued that alleged procedural failures justified keeping 40 of the convictions on the books. The office did not dispute facts or specify how those cases differed from 169 Watts-linked convictions that judges had already thrown out with backing from prosecutors.

Foxx’s support for those convictions raised the prospect of her office having to defend the arrests in contested hearings — a challenging task without testimony by the disgraced officers, who include Watts, another cop who was sent to prison, and 10 officers whom Foxx’s office said it would no longer call to the witness stand due to “concerns about their credibility” because of close ties to the former sergeant.

Speaking for Foxx’s office at Friday’s hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Catherine Malloy officially withdrew opposition to vacating the 40 convictions. Malloy said the opposition had been due to the arrests involving “officers who have not been impugned in Watt’s nefarious conduct.”

But the arrests also involved cops “discredited” because of their Watts ties, Malloy said. The role of those officers “raises concerns about the integrity of these cases.”

Malloy said the office also would not oppose throwing out four other pending Watts-tied convictions.

After the hearing, Foxx issued a statement on her new position.

“In order to restore trust in the criminal justice system, as prosecutors, we must approach every case with an eye toward the facts, the evidence, and the law,” she said. “I’m grateful for the attorneys in this office who continue to seek justice, restore trust, and address the historic inequities of Cook County’s criminal justice system.”

Watts associates still on the payroll

Watts led a police unit that was under investigation for more than a decade for allegedly framing people and stealing money from drug dealers at the Wells complex. After making hundreds of allegedly bogus arrests, Watts and Kallatt Mohammed, an officer he supervised, were arrested in 2012 and sent to federal prison for stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant.

The first exoneree was Wells resident Ben Baker, who had two drug convictions thrown out in 2016 after he languished for nearly a decade in prison.

That exoneration led to others, prompting Foxx’s office to create the list of Watts associates it would no longer call for testimony and leading CPD to put those officers and several others on desk duty due to their ties to Watts.

CPD returned most of those cops to regular duty. At least nine remain with the department.

The city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability spent more than three years investigating Watts team members until finally delivering findings and recommendations to police Supt. David Brown in March of last year. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has not released that report.

Last June, CPD stripped former Watts underling Sgt. Alvin Jones of police powers, a move first reported by WBEZ, and assigned him to a unit that handles non-emergency calls. City officials have not answered questions about the status of his case.

Fenton and his attorney, Joshua Tepfer, urged Lightfoot’s administration to fire Jones and the other remaining Watts associates on the police payroll. They also called for criminal charges against Watts-tied cops, whom they accused of perjury.

Chip Mitchell reports about policing out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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