What started as a routine walk to get lunch one afternoon in June 2004 has turned into 18 years of hardship for Lolita Newell involving police corruption.
Newell, then 23, lived in Ida B. Wells, a former housing complex on Chicago’s South Side. She and her boyfriend would make trips to a nearby building where a tenant sold fast food and loose cigarettes.
“In the projects, a lot of people hustled, selling food and stuff out of the house,” Newell said. “We didn’t go to restaurants like McDonald’s. Our meals were from people’s houses.”
When Newell made it back downstairs with a tray of nachos, she saw officers on a team led by Sgt. Ronald Watts detaining her boyfriend and several other men, she said.
After Newell protested their treatment, she said, the officers detained her. The arrest report, signed by Watts, said the officers saw her with 16 plastic bags of white-powder heroin.
A scandal around Watts has led Cook County judges to throw out 150 convictions tied to his unit. But State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office is rejecting efforts to toss dozens more, including Newell’s case, leaving her frustrated and confused.
“They already know that Ronald Watts was the definition of the devil,” Newell said.
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 carrying out hundreds of allegedly bogus arrests, Watts and one of his underlings were arrested themselves in 2012 and sent to federal prison for stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant.
The vacated convictions include 40 in recent months from a July petition calling for 100 cases to be tossed.
A hearing before Judge Erica Reddick on Wednesday is scheduled to address another 28 convictions from that petition. Foxx’s office says it’s planning to go along with vacating 19 of those.
But Newell’s attorney, Joel Flaxman, said he has been informed that her conviction is not one of them. Her case will join 32 others from the July petition that Foxx’s office has already put the brakes on.
Foxx’s office has promised to respond in writing about each of those pending cases for a March 22 hearing. A spokesperson for the office wrote on Tuesday that each response will be “individualized to its unique set of circumstances.”
The pace at which Foxx is handling Watts cases is frustrating the petitioners and their attorneys. They say the office should be identifying the convictions on its own and dismissing them en masse.
“When there are clearly rogue police officers who are not credible,” said attorney Sean Starr, who represents many of the petitioners, “the way in which other jurisdictions have addressed it is they’ve done an internal review and dismissed all the possible cases that are attributed to those officers.”
Last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, prosecutors moved to throw out more than 400 convictions tied to a former patrol officer who was accused of stopping motorists without legal basis and planting drugs on innocent people. Judges in New York City have tossed out 257 felony cases tied to an allegedly corrupt detective. Those include 133 dismissed en masse last month.
“We think that should be done here,” Starr said.
But Foxx has refused and signaled her office will stand behind some of the Watts-related arrests.
“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 this month after an earlier Watts-related hearing.
Foxx said the factors in deciding whether to support vacating a conviction include which officers were working on the case, when they did the work, and the “sufficiency of the evidence.”
“And so it is being done on a case-by-case basis,” Foxx said. “It is a process that has been painfully slow, but one that we believe in. It must be done meticulously to ensure the accuracy of our work.”
If Foxx’s office leaves the Watts-tied convictions in place, attorneys for the petitioners say they will take the cases to contested hearings that would require her office to defend the arrests in court — a task that would be difficult without testimony by the disgraced officers.
In 2017, Foxx’s office informed the Police Department it would no longer call 10 former members of Watts’ unit to the witness stand in criminal cases due to “concerns about their credibility” in light of their work with the sergeant. This month Foxx told reporters that the no-call list remains in effect.
The arrest report for Newell lists both Watts and Kallatt Mohammed — the officers who were sent to federal prison — as well as six officers on Foxx’s no-call list. Those six include both of the case’s “arresting officers.” Just one other cop mentioned in the report was neither convicted nor included on the no-call list.
“He ruined so many people’s lives”
Newell, who said she had previously been arrested on drug and theft charges, was convicted of a felony for the June 2004 incident and sentenced to two years in prison. She spent more than a year behind bars.
After her release, Newell said the criminal record excluded her from many types of government assistance, including help from the Chicago Housing Authority. She said the conviction led to years of “wandering” in which she had to rely on friends and relatives to take her in.
At age 41, Newell is still trying to get her life on track. She is living in a friend’s house near Tampa, Florida, where she manages a fast-food restaurant. Next month, she said, she will begin a school program that could lead to an associate’s degree in business.
And she is pressing to clear her name of that drug felony linked to Watts.
“He ruined so many people’s lives,” Newell said. “He took so many kids away from their parents for greed.”
Newell said Foxx’s office knows it.
She said it’s time for the prosecutors to support throwing out not only her conviction but “every case that his team put its signature on.”