Dozens of people are asking a court to throw out their drug convictions, alleging they were framed by the same former Chicago Police sergeant who judges have determined shook down other residents of one of the city’s poorest communities.
Tuesday’s court filing on behalf of 88 people is the latest development in one of the darkest chapters in the history of the city’s police force. A unit led by a Black sergeant, Ronald Watts, for nearly a decade until 2012 planted drugs or falsely accused housing project residents and others of drug crimes unless they paid the officers off.
In court hearings that began five years ago, residents of Ida B. Wells public housing on the South Side told strikingly similar stories of doing nothing more dangerous than parking their cars, walking in the hallway or sitting on a bench when Watts or others on his team shook them down.
On Tuesday, some of those named in the petition told of how their lives were devastated by their convictions.
“I lost my apartment, had to be separated from my children. I was homeless, on the streets for 15 years,” Laurarence Coleman told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
Coleman said she was one of many arrested who pleaded guilty because they knew they had little hope of convincing a judge or a jury that the officers were lying, and that fighting the charges would mean risking a sentence far longer than the one prosecutors were offering.
“Many were force to plead guilty because they knew no one would listen to the truth,” attorney Joel Flaxman, who represents 28 named in the petition, said in a statement before the news conference.
As others convicted in cases involving Watts have said in the past, Coleman said she still struggles to regain control of her life.
“I can’t get a job … because they look at my background and see ‘criminal.’ I’m not a criminal,” she said.
This petition filed in Cook County Circuit Court comes five months after a judge threw out the latest batch of more than 100 drug convictions of people who were allegedly framed by Watts and his unit.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, which has agreed to requests to toss out dozens of convictions, did not comment on the petitions of these 88 people other than to say in a statement that it is “continuing to review cases tied to” Watts.
But one indication that the office’s work is far from complete came from Joshua Tepfer, who has said Watts was involved with perhaps 500 convictions in the eight-year period that ended in 2012.
Tepfer criticized the city for not punishing many of the officers associated with Watts and his unit. Watts and another officer pleaded guilty in 2013 to stealing money from an FBI informant. Watts received a 22-month prison sentence.
But in December, the police department acknowledged that 15 other officers associated with Watts and his unit were placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation. The department did not immediately respond Tuesday to a question about the status of that investigation.