In a sudden about-face Thursday night, Chicago police said seven cops, once part of an allegedly corrupt crew, will be removed from street duties while their conduct years ago is investigated.
The reversal came hours after Cook County prosecutors threw out the convictions of 15 men who were framed by the crew — led by former Sgt. Ronald Watts, who did prison time for shaking down drug dealers.
Police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said Thursday night that one sergeant and six officers who worked with Watts have been placed on paid desk duty while an internal investigation is conducted.
Asked earlier Thursday why several officers tied to Watts’ corrupt crew were still on the force, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson noted none had been convicted of a crime — unlike Watts.
“They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country,” he told reporters after his speech to the City Club of Chicago. “… But we just can’t arbitrarily take the job away from people.”
Asked whether those officers might be taken off the streets while the department looks into the cases, Johnson said, “Once I get enough information, then that may be what happens. But right now … we are looking at it.”
Johnson did not address the lengthy internal affairs investigation that Chicago police conducted into both Watts and other officers on his team.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the mass exoneration, attorneys vowed to continue to review potentially hundreds of convictions tied to Watts and his crew.
The lead attorney for the 15 men whose cases were thrown out said as many as 500 additional convictions need to be checked out.
“It needs to be investigated and vetted about how many of those are appropriate to overturn,” Joshua Tepfer told reporters after the charges had been tossed. “We are very much in the process of doing that.”
Mark Rotert, head of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit whose investigation led to the dismissals, promised a careful review of remaining cases tied to Watts and his crew, though he declined to say how many that might involve.
Rotert, who took the post this past summer after years in private practice and stints as a federal prosecutor and Illinois assistant attorney general, called the process “very exacting” and indicated that his team won’t paint with a broad brush.
“These are like snowflakes — truly, they’re different. They need to be evaluated differently,” he said of each case. “Every time … we see something that causes concern, we’re going to take a hard look at it.”
Ten of the 15 men were in court Thursday as the criminal division’s Presiding Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., acting at the request of prosecutors, threw out the convictions en masse — believed to be the first mass exoneration in county history.
The action opens the door for all 15 to pursue certificates of innocence as well as to file potentially lucrative wrongful conviction lawsuits against the city.
It marks the third consecutive day that prosecutors dropped charges at the Leighton Criminal Court Building because of alleged misconduct by Chicago police. Jose Maysonet, 49, walked free Wednesday after 27 years in custody for a double murder when a sergeant and four detectives — all retired — indicated they would assert their Fifth Amendment right and refuse to answer questions about the alleged confessions they obtained.
On Tuesday, Arthur Brown, 66, was released after county prosecutors reversed course and dropped murder charges against him, saying “significant evidentiary issues” raised “deep concerns” about the fairness of his conviction. Brown had been in custody 29 years for a double murder.
The mass exoneration Thursday comes two months after lawyers for the 15 men filed a joint petition seeking to overturn a total of 18 criminal illegal substance convictions, alleging that Watts and his crew framed all of them between 2003 and 2008.
Watts and an officer under his command were sent to federal prison in 2013 for stealing money from a drug courier who had been working as an FBI informant.
Because of the age of the cases, all 15 men had completed their sentences, including prison time for many. Two remain in custody on unrelated charges.
The Watts-related convictions of five other people had previously been thrown out, so Thursday’s development brings the total to 20 of those cleared of wrongdoing. In addition, two Chicago police officers who alleged they were blackballed for trying to expose Watts’ corruption years ago won a $2 million settlement in their whistleblower lawsuit.
Tepfer, of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, had originally sought the appointment of a “special master” to try to reach a full accounting of all the victims wrongly convicted by Watts and his team. He had raised concerns that the scope of the inquiry was too broad for the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit and its small staff.
But he withdrew his request after county prosecutors agreed to pore over potentially hundreds of tainted convictions involving Watts and officers he supervised.
Tepfer said Thursday that he was “extraordinarily heartened” by the state’s attorney’s decision to throw out all the convictions at once. “This is something that’s rarely done in the country, as far as I know, where cases are looked at en masse because of some sort of law enforcement or official problem and in the interest of justice that we have to do a clean sweep,” he said.
In a statement issued later Thursday, Foxx, who took office nearly a year ago promising reform, said claims filed with the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit have soared fivefold.
“We will evaluate each one we receive with the same attention to facts and commitment to justice that was demonstrated today,” Foxx said.