group of exonerees have photo taken by group of journalists
A group of exonerees connected to corrupt former CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts address the media at the criminal courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. A WBEZ analysis estimates lawsuits from the exonerees could cost taxpayers $81.6 million. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press
group of exonerees have photo taken by group of journalists
A group of exonerees connected to corrupt former CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts address the media at the criminal courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. A WBEZ analysis estimates lawsuits from the exonerees could cost taxpayers $81.6 million. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

For the last eight years, judges have been throwing out convictions linked to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts. Now, the bill is coming due.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is negotiating a possible deal with exonerees that — if recent city settlement patterns hold — could total more than $80 million, a WBEZ analysis shows.

Cook County judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. Nearly all of the 187 exonerees have sued for damages in federal court. Since September, attorneys for the city and those exonerees have engaged in several negotiation sessions and exchanged settlement offers. The attorneys declined to comment on the scale of a potential deal.

But WBEZ came up with an estimate by reviewing all 2021 and 2022 city payouts in “reversed convictions,” as the Law Department labeled the 17 cases. Those payouts averaged $302,366 for every year a plaintiff spent in jail or prison.

Applying that rate to the Watts exonerees — who together spent roughly 270 years behind bars — the settlements could total $81.6 million.

Adding millions of dollars for outside attorneys to represent the defendants, the Watts scandal could cost city taxpayers as much as they are budgeted to pay in 2024 for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“It is a day of reckoning,” said former CPD officer Shannon Spalding, who worked alongside Watts before secretly helping investigate the unit’s corruption as part of an FBI probe. “I’m grateful the victims will finally have the opportunity to come forward and have their day in court or be compensated.”

If the Johnson administration doesn’t negotiate a settlement and instead fights the Watts-related lawsuits in court, it will be an uphill battle. During 2021 and 2022, according to Law Department annual reports on police litigation, just two reversed-conviction lawsuits led to a dismissal, final judgment or verdict favoring the city.

And if Watts-related lawsuits end up before juries, the cost for taxpayers could skyrocket. City payouts during the two-year span for reversed-conviction judgments equaled $852,494 per year of plaintiff custody. At that rate, payouts to the Watts exonerees would be $230.2 million.

Taxing drug dealers and framing people

Sgt. Ronald Watts led a tactical unit that was under investigation for more than a decade for allegedly taxing drug dealers and framing people at Ida B. Wells, a former South Side public housing complex.

But CPD and the FBI left the officers on the street and “allowed the corruption to continue to flourish as everyday business,” Spalding said. “How far up the chain of command did the dirty money go?”

After hundreds of allegedly bogus arrests, Watts and Kallatt Mohammed, another member of the unit, were caught stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant. Arrested in 2012, they eventually pleaded guilty. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison.

Ronald Watts in black suit walking out of courthouse
Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence for his role in an FBI undercover sting. Lawsuits tied to Watts could cost Chicago taxpayers more than $80 million. Kevin Tanaka / Chicago Sun-Times

Watts, in his first public comments since his prison release, told a conservative web streamer earlier this year he has been wrongly targeted by investigators, prosecutors, journalists, liberal universities and, now, the hundreds of people whose convictions have been thrown out.

“These guys took over buildings where kids couldn’t go to school in the morning because of narcotic sales,” Watts said. “That led me to be as aggressive as I was and to be down there in their face.”

“I affected their bottom line,” he said, calling the lawsuits against him a collection of “frivolous charges.”

The first exoneree was Wells resident Ben Baker, who languished in prison for nearly a decade before a Cook County judge — in light of the Watts and Mohammed arrests — threw out two of Baker’s Watts-tied drug convictions in 2016.

Baker and his longtime companion — Clarissa Glenn, who was also arrested by Watts’s unit — brought a lawsuit that is scheduled for trial in January 2025. It would be the first federal trial about compensation linked to Watts’s corruption.

U.S. District Judge Franklin U. Valderrama is overseeing coordinated discovery in that case and 175 other lawsuits brought by exonerees. He has also pushed the parties to begin the settlement talks.

While nearly all the Watts lawsuits have been filed in federal court, a yardstick for a settlement could come from Cook County Circuit Court. Alvin Waddy’s lawsuit is scheduled for trial there this coming April, long before any of the federal cases.

The evening of April 4, 2007, Waddy was playing dice and socializing with other people in the lobby of a Wells public housing building, he said in a sworn affidavit.

A police report said officers supervised by Watts entered and found Waddy, 21, and another man holding 30 baggies of crack cocaine.

In his affidavit, Waddy denied possessing any drugs. He said the officers ordered more than two dozen people to stand facing a wall to be searched and, when no drugs were found, one of the cops claimed to have discovered the baggies on a windowsill about 25 feet away.

“I got a public defender who advised me to plead out,” Waddy’s affidavit said. “I told her that I was being framed but she told me that I wasn’t going to get a better deal if I went to trial.”

Waddy spent 463 days behind bars in the case, his attorney said.

Waddy’s conviction was thrown out in 2019. The following month, a judge approved an innocence certificate, paving the way for state compensation. That payment was $70,000, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Now Waddy could be first in line for a much larger payment.

The defendants in Waddy’s lawsuit include the city, Watts and eight other former members of the sergeant’s unit, who have denied wrongdoing.

Mayor Johnson’s administration declined to answer whether city attorneys are trying to settle the Watts-related lawsuits en masse and whether taxpayers should expect the average payout rate to be any lower than it has been in the recently settled reversed convictions.

“The city does not comment on ongoing litigation,” Law Department spokesperson Kristen Cabanban wrote. “Publicly discussing details of a case could jeopardize the city’s defenses and legal efforts to resolve these matters.”

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

group of exonerees have photo taken by group of journalists
A group of exonerees connected to corrupt former CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts address the media at the criminal courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. A WBEZ analysis estimates lawsuits from the exonerees could cost taxpayers $81.6 million. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press
group of exonerees have photo taken by group of journalists
A group of exonerees connected to corrupt former CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts address the media at the criminal courthouse in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. A WBEZ analysis estimates lawsuits from the exonerees could cost taxpayers $81.6 million. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

For the last eight years, judges have been throwing out convictions linked to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts. Now, the bill is coming due.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is negotiating a possible deal with exonerees that — if recent city settlement patterns hold — could total more than $80 million, a WBEZ analysis shows.

Cook County judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions since 2016. Nearly all of the 187 exonerees have sued for damages in federal court. Since September, attorneys for the city and those exonerees have engaged in several negotiation sessions and exchanged settlement offers. The attorneys declined to comment on the scale of a potential deal.

But WBEZ came up with an estimate by reviewing all 2021 and 2022 city payouts in “reversed convictions,” as the Law Department labeled the 17 cases. Those payouts averaged $302,366 for every year a plaintiff spent in jail or prison.

Applying that rate to the Watts exonerees — who together spent roughly 270 years behind bars — the settlements could total $81.6 million.

Adding millions of dollars for outside attorneys to represent the defendants, the Watts scandal could cost city taxpayers as much as they are budgeted to pay in 2024 for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“It is a day of reckoning,” said former CPD officer Shannon Spalding, who worked alongside Watts before secretly helping investigate the unit’s corruption as part of an FBI probe. “I’m grateful the victims will finally have the opportunity to come forward and have their day in court or be compensated.”

If the Johnson administration doesn’t negotiate a settlement and instead fights the Watts-related lawsuits in court, it will be an uphill battle. During 2021 and 2022, according to Law Department annual reports on police litigation, just two reversed-conviction lawsuits led to a dismissal, final judgment or verdict favoring the city.

And if Watts-related lawsuits end up before juries, the cost for taxpayers could skyrocket. City payouts during the two-year span for reversed-conviction judgments equaled $852,494 per year of plaintiff custody. At that rate, payouts to the Watts exonerees would be $230.2 million.

Taxing drug dealers and framing people

Sgt. Ronald Watts led a tactical unit that was under investigation for more than a decade for allegedly taxing drug dealers and framing people at Ida B. Wells, a former South Side public housing complex.

But CPD and the FBI left the officers on the street and “allowed the corruption to continue to flourish as everyday business,” Spalding said. “How far up the chain of command did the dirty money go?”

After hundreds of allegedly bogus arrests, Watts and Kallatt Mohammed, another member of the unit, were caught stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant. Arrested in 2012, they eventually pleaded guilty. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison.

Ronald Watts in black suit walking out of courthouse
Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence for his role in an FBI undercover sting. Lawsuits tied to Watts could cost Chicago taxpayers more than $80 million. Kevin Tanaka / Chicago Sun-Times

Watts, in his first public comments since his prison release, told a conservative web streamer earlier this year he has been wrongly targeted by investigators, prosecutors, journalists, liberal universities and, now, the hundreds of people whose convictions have been thrown out.

“These guys took over buildings where kids couldn’t go to school in the morning because of narcotic sales,” Watts said. “That led me to be as aggressive as I was and to be down there in their face.”

“I affected their bottom line,” he said, calling the lawsuits against him a collection of “frivolous charges.”

The first exoneree was Wells resident Ben Baker, who languished in prison for nearly a decade before a Cook County judge — in light of the Watts and Mohammed arrests — threw out two of Baker’s Watts-tied drug convictions in 2016.

Baker and his longtime companion — Clarissa Glenn, who was also arrested by Watts’s unit — brought a lawsuit that is scheduled for trial in January 2025. It would be the first federal trial about compensation linked to Watts’s corruption.

U.S. District Judge Franklin U. Valderrama is overseeing coordinated discovery in that case and 175 other lawsuits brought by exonerees. He has also pushed the parties to begin the settlement talks.

While nearly all the Watts lawsuits have been filed in federal court, a yardstick for a settlement could come from Cook County Circuit Court. Alvin Waddy’s lawsuit is scheduled for trial there this coming April, long before any of the federal cases.

The evening of April 4, 2007, Waddy was playing dice and socializing with other people in the lobby of a Wells public housing building, he said in a sworn affidavit.

A police report said officers supervised by Watts entered and found Waddy, 21, and another man holding 30 baggies of crack cocaine.

In his affidavit, Waddy denied possessing any drugs. He said the officers ordered more than two dozen people to stand facing a wall to be searched and, when no drugs were found, one of the cops claimed to have discovered the baggies on a windowsill about 25 feet away.

“I got a public defender who advised me to plead out,” Waddy’s affidavit said. “I told her that I was being framed but she told me that I wasn’t going to get a better deal if I went to trial.”

Waddy spent 463 days behind bars in the case, his attorney said.

Waddy’s conviction was thrown out in 2019. The following month, a judge approved an innocence certificate, paving the way for state compensation. That payment was $70,000, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Now Waddy could be first in line for a much larger payment.

The defendants in Waddy’s lawsuit include the city, Watts and eight other former members of the sergeant’s unit, who have denied wrongdoing.

Mayor Johnson’s administration declined to answer whether city attorneys are trying to settle the Watts-related lawsuits en masse and whether taxpayers should expect the average payout rate to be any lower than it has been in the recently settled reversed convictions.

“The city does not comment on ongoing litigation,” Law Department spokesperson Kristen Cabanban wrote. “Publicly discussing details of a case could jeopardize the city’s defenses and legal efforts to resolve these matters.”

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.