Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is doubling down on more than three-dozen convictions tied to corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.
Foxx’s office in court filings Tuesday and Wednesday accused petitioners who are challenging 37 convictions of stumbling on procedural hurdles including a two-year deadline for filing their claims. The office would not specify how those cases differ from 169 Watts-linked convictions that prosecutors supported vacating and that judges have thrown out.
“We look at each case individually and make a decision based on the facts and the evidence in that case,” Cristina Villarreal, a spokeswoman for the office, wrote to WBEZ.
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 Ida B. Wells housing complex on Chicago’s South Side. After making hundreds of allegedly bogus arrests, Watts and 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 37 convictions that Foxx is backing resemble the 169 cases thrown out, making it difficult to see why the office is standing by those cases. Most of the officers involved were longtime members of the sergeant’s unit. The arrests took place between 2002 and 2008. The alleged offenses were drug felonies. The sentences ranged from probation to a few years in prison.
The 37 convictions all stemmed from guilty pleas, according to the filings this week from Foxx’s office.
“A plea of guilty is a grave act that is not reversible at the defendant’s whim,” prosecutor Carol Rogala wrote in the filings, adding that judges should allow withdrawing a guilty plea “only as required to correct a manifest injustice.”
But guilty pleas are not unusual in the Watts-related convictions that have been thrown out. In 2006, Wells residents Ben Baker and his wife, Clarissa Glenn, pleaded guilty to Watts-linked charges under an agreement in which Glenn would be placed on probation so that she could care for their children while Baker served a prison term. After Baker spent nearly a decade behind bars, the couple became the first Watts-linked exonerees in 2016.
Foxx’s office is also standing behind four convictions that resulted from bench trials. Prosecutors on Tuesday did not file anything supporting those convictions, despite telling Presiding Criminal Division Judge Erica Reddick in a hearing that morning that they would.
“We received additional information … that we will need to review,” Villarreal, the state’s attorney’s spokeswoman, wrote on Wednesday.
This week’s filings stem from a promise by Foxx’s office last month to provide a written response about each Watts-tied case that would be “individualized to its unique set of circumstances.”
But the filings are identical in nearly every detail, including a capitalized misspelling in the first line: “KIMBERLY M. FOX.”
In each filing, a five-page legal argument accuses the petitioner of failing to bring a claim within two years of the judgment, failing to show “diligence” in claiming newly discovered evidence, failing to show a “meritorious claim or defense,” and failing to prove that prosecutors withheld potentially exonerating evidence.
“The ultimate question before the court is whether the new evidence places the trial evidence in a different light and undermines the court’s confidence in the judgment of guilt,” Rogala wrote. “The People deny that petitioner can meet this burden.”
Foxx told reporters last month that she would not follow the path of prosecutors in other parts of the country who have gone along with throwing out convictions en masse after police corruption scandals. Instead, she said her office would review the circumstances of each case.
“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 said.
Foxx said the factors in deciding whether to support vacating a Watts-tied conviction include which officers were working on the case, when they did the work, and the “sufficiency of the evidence.”
Foxx’s support of the Watts-tied convictions sets the stage for prosecutors having to defend the arrests in court hearings — a challenging assignment without testimony by the disgraced officers, who include Watts, the other cop who was sent to prison, and 10 officers whom Foxx’s office does not call to the witness stand due to “concerns about their credibility” because of close ties to the former sergeant.