BY: The Exoneration Project

Reviewing Convictions of Convicted Cops

Last week I bemoaned Illinois’s non-existent response to reports concluding that unknown amounts of individuals may have been convicted based upon science we now know is scientifically unreliable. I suggested steps the Attorney General could take to show that her Office would consider reviewing cases to ensure that no one is serving prison time based on faulty science.

Cook County and Chicago, however, have their own category of cases, however, that needs systemic review.

There is no secret that too many Chicago cops have been identified as corrupt. And I’m not talking about officers that defense attorneys allege are corrupt—I’m talking about Chicago officers that local, state, and/or federal law enforcement have concluded are corrupt.

Take Sgt. Ronald Watts: The federally-convicted Ronald Watts is back in the news in light of my client Ben Baker filing a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking recompense for his decade-long wrongful conviction. The Cook County State’s Attorney agreed to release Baker once the full scope of our allegations of Watts’ corruption was presented. This evidence included Watts’ guilty plea to bribing a federal informant, multiple court statements and written reports from federal prosecutors and FBI agents, and sworn statements from whistle blowing Chicago Police Officers. Together, these documents provided powerful evidence that Watts engaged in criminal activity under the color of law—including framing innocent people who attempted to expose him—for a decade.

Faced with this evidence, a top Cook County prosecutor concluded Baker’s conviction couldn’t stand because “the conviction’s tainted… . Now it’s a fact that (Watts) is a dirty police officer.”

We all should applaud this decision by the State. But we should also demand more.

If Baker’s conviction was tainted by “a dirty police officer,” so is every other case that Watts touched. How many more individuals were wrongfully convicted by Watts?

How many other individuals, like Ben Baker, were ignored when they, too, complained they were framed by Watts? Like Ben, those allegations are a lot more reliable today.

City and county law enforcement must go back and examine cases involving Watts to determine whether justice was served. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez could start by distributing an internal memo ordering prosecutors in her Office to self-identify and bring to her attention all cases in which Sgt. Watts testified that led to a conviction. Her conviction integrity unit could then re-examine those cases.

Reviewing tainted cases is exactly what Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson did when he discovered evidence of a “dirty” police detective.

Reports are all well and good. The release of Ben Baker and the acknowledgement that he was framed is great. But proactive steps by our law enforcement leaders are needed to identify and fix injustices.