In what’s said to be the first mass exoneration in history, an Illinois judge has thrown out the convictions of 15 men who were framed by a corrupt ex-police sergeant and several of his officers in the Chicago Police Department between 2003 and 2008.
The police officers, led by then-Sgt. Ronald Watts, allegedly extorted the 15 men in separate incidents over those five years in a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side. If they didn’t pay, they would have drugs planted on them and a team of officers would lie on the stand, and the men got jail time. Some had already served out their sentences, others were still sitting in jail when the ruling came down late Thursday.
“In these cases, we concluded, unfortunately, that the police were not being truthful,” Mark Rotert, the director of Cook County State Attorney’s conviction integrity unit, told reporters. “[I]n good conscience, we could not see these convictions stand.”
Just hours after the ruling in a Cook County court, seven members of the Chicago PD were suspended from patrolling the streets, pending an investigation into their actions in connection with the ruling.
“Everyone knew … if you’re not going to pay Watts, you’re going to jail,” said Leonard Gipson, an exoneree who’d spent a total of three years behind bars. “That’s just the way it was gonna go.”
All of the exonerees had charges on their record that penalized them when it came to finding employment. But Gipson, at least, is hopeful.
“Right now we’re in a position where we’re not getting jobs, we’re in a position where we’re all trying,” he said. “And it’s all because of backgrounds … it’s tough for us all right now, but now we have an opportunity to do something better with our lives. And hopefully we make it happen.”
Joshua Tepfer, the lawyer from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, who’s spearheading the case on behalf of the 15 men, told reporters the case opened a can of worms for other cases involving these same cops to be re-opened.
“It needs to be investigated and vetted about how many of those are appropriate to overturn,” Tepfer said. “We are very much in the process of doing that.”
Tepfer did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
State Attorney Kim Foxx who ran for the position on a platform of police reform and transparency, said her office had seen a massive increase in claims.
“We have seen a 500 percent increase in such claims, and we will evaluate each one we receive with the same attention to facts and commitment to justice that was demonstrated today,” Foxx said in a statement.
Thursday’s dropped charges brings the total vacated cases involving Watts to 20. Watts and another officer were caught stealing in 2013 and were sent to federal prison, according to the Chicago Tribune.