CHICAGO (WBBM Newsradio) — Fifteen men who were cleared of drug convictions tied to a corrupt former Chicago police officer, in what was believed to be the first mass exoneration in Cook County history, have now sought certificates of innocence.
Cook County prosecutors agreed to throw out the men’s convictions in November, amid allegations they were framed by former Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who served nearly two years in prison for stealing thousands of dollars from a drug suspect who turned out to be an FBI informant.
Formal certificates of innocence for the men would officially clear the cases from their records, and help them get jobs, housing, and financial compensation for the time they spent behind bars, according to their attorney, Joshua Tepfer.
“What’s never understood is that this stuff sticks with you,” Tepfer said in November. “These convictions stick with you. You can’t get the time back you served. It affects your ability to get jobs, housing.”
Leonard Gipson was only 22 when he was arrested on drug charges in 2003. He said Watts framed him after he refused to pay the sergeant’s so-called “protection tax.”
Gipson said Watts on three separate occasions planted heroin on him, and placed him under arrest. After he bonded out in the first case, Watts again planted drugs on him, and Gipson ended up pleading guilty and serving four months in boot camp.
In 2007, he ran into Watts’ crew again, and was arrested a third time after they planted more drugs on him. That case got him four years in prison.
“Watts always told me, ‘If you’re not going to pay me, I’m going to get you.’ And every time I ran into him, he put drugs on me. Every time,” Gipson said after his conviction was overturned.
Now exonerated, Gipson said he feels like a newborn baby with his whole life ahead of him. He hopes he can now get a job with his record cleared.
Four years ago, Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammad were sentenced to nearly two years in prison, for stealing thousands of dollars from a drug suspect who turned out to be an FBI informant.
In their guilty pleas, Watts and Mohammed admitted to routinely extorting money from drug dealers.
Mark Rotert, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is committed to reviewing other cases where Watts was involved.
Seven officers who were on Watts’ tactical team were taken off the streets a day after the exonerations.
Police Supt. Eddie Johnson says he’s taking a “hard look” at their conduct.
“Anytime you have cases where officers engage in misconduct, none of us like that kind of thing because it paints the entire department in a negative light,” he said Thursday at an appearance at the City Club of Chicago. “I’m not saying these officers are involved in that, I don’t know, but that’s why we’re taking a hard look at that.”