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Cook County prosecutors toss more convictions tainted by corrupt ex-Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

A Cook County judge on Tuesday tossed out a father and son’s drug convictions tainted by corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts. The decision by Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. brings to 22 the number of people who have seen their drug convictions thrown out because of Watts’ involvement in their arrests. 

In a related move Tuesday, Martin granted certificates of innocence to nine others whose Watts-related convictions had already been thrown out. Acting at the request of prosecutors, Martin, the presiding judge at the county’s main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue, threw out three drug convictions tied to Angelo Shenault Sr. and his son, Angelo Jr. “We’re grateful that somebody’s finally listening to these men who were mistreated and abused for decades,” attorney Joel Flaxman, who represents both, told reporters after the hearing. Prosecutors have also agreed to drop the conviction of a third individual, but due to a scheduling mix-up, his case was not on the judge’s docket Tuesday. That conviction should be thrown out later this week, Flaxman said. 

The Chicago Tribune has written several front-page stories detailing the scandal over Watts' nearly decadelong run of corruption. Watts, who was convicted on federal charges, has repeatedly been accused of forcing residents and drug dealers alike to pay a "protection" tax and putting bogus cases on those who refused to do so. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has said it is conducting a thorough review of convictions tied to the former sergeant. 

 The lead attorney for many of the men whose drug convictions have been thrown out has said that as many as 500 additional convictions need to be checked out. In November, in what is believed to be the county’s first mass exoneration, prosecutors dropped charges against 15 men whose arrests were tied to Watts. 

Hours later, Chicago police removed seven cops once part of Watts’ allegedly corrupt crew from street duties while their conduct years ago was investigated. On Tuesday, attorney Joshua Tepfer, of the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project, sought certificates of innocence for all 15 in an effort to further clear their names and allow them to recoup money from the state for their wrongful imprisonment. Martin granted the certificates to nine of the men but held off on deciding on the others. In his view, he said, state statute allows such certificates to be granted only to those who served prison sentences. 

The remaining six men instead were sentenced to boot camp or probation. Phillip Thomas, one of those granted a certificate of innocence, later told reporters he spent about three years in prison on the allegedly bogus charges. “Nobody would listen to me,” he said. “It was like being trapped out there in the cold (and) nobody would let you in.” In case after case, when Watts' targets complained of his corruption, judges, prosecutors and internal affairs investigators all believed the testimony of Watts and other officers over their accusers, records show. Despite mounting allegations, Watts continued to operate for years amid a lengthy police internal affairs division probe as well as investigations by the state's attorney's office and the FBI, according to court records. Watts and an officer under his command were finally charged with stealing money from a drug courier who had been working as an FBI informant. At his sentencing in October 2013, a federal judge talked tough but in the end handed Watts only 22 months in prison. 

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