BY: The Exoneration Project

The Watts era is nearing a conclusion.

I started at the Exoneration Project almost seven years ago in May 2015. When I got here, Ben Baker was a case on our docket. By the time I got here, however, Ben’s attorney Liz Wang had moved out of state. Since I was the new guy with much less to do than anyone else, Liz asked me a couple of times if I could go to court on Ben’s case while she was awaiting some documents.

In some minimal preparation for one of those court dates, I started reading the case file. And I spoke to Liz once or twice and learned a little bit about the case and this former police Sergeant named Ronald Watts. The long and the short of it was Ben testified that Watts planted drugs on him, and then a decade later Watts went to federal prison for similar misconduct. It seemed wrong to me that Ben was still in prison. I asked Liz if I could work on Ben’s case. Liz—who is busy winning historical civil rights verdicts—let me go from there.

Ben was exonerated in January 2016 and released from prison. A couple months later, he was exonerated again, this time with his long-time partner Clarissa Glenn on a separate case Watts and his team framed them both on. Then another man, Lionel White, Sr., was exonerated later that year on allegations Watts and his team framed him, too.

Over the next six years, all of it just exploded. Literally hundreds of people contacted our office to tell us they, too, were framed of drug and gun crimes by Watts and his corrupt group of officers. My office gave me the resources to expand our team so we could investigate the cases of literally everyone who contacted us. Enter Attorney Sean Starr, and later investigator Amy Kasper. We had lots of help from others along the way, but our group began looking at every single case that came through the door.

Over the next six years, we took on as clients many of the individuals that contacted us. We further investigated every single one of those cases. We litigated many of them in court. We negotiated with prosecutors. We filed unique legal petitions. We counseled each and every one of them on other adjacent issues. And we won. Over and over again we won.

Today, 44 more convictions that stubbornly remained for far too long were tossed away. This includes the last of the remaining convictions from the mass petition from last July asking for the exoneration of 88 individuals, including our clients and those represented by our partner Joel Flaxman. It includes individuals like Herbert Anderson, who we have represented for five years. We’ve now won them all. A clean sweep.

After seven years of litigating these Watts post-conviction cases, it is starting to feel like we are near the end of it. I’ve gotten the privilege to meet and represent an enormously resilient group of individuals. They are all Black. They are all victims of a failed criminal justice system. And they are all viewed as disposable by the Chicago Police Department and City Hall. That was the case for a decade-long cover up, and that remains the case today.

The number of victims is astounding. The number of lost years in jail and prison is nauseating. The police and City corruption is appalling. You can read all about these things in the Tribune or the Sun Times or watch newscasts on television.

But for me, Sean, and Amy, it has always been about the people—our clients and their families. And the community that suffered at the hands of that corruption. Out of everything, I’m proudest of that.  Sean, Amy, and I have made these relationships with these victims (our clients and now friends) and maintained them. I’m proud that we believed them, and proud they believed and trusted us.  And I’m proud so many people have gotten belated justice and their voices have been heard.

By Josh Tepfer