CHICAGO - A dozen people who had collectively served 30 years in prison had their drug convictions vacated Tuesday, marking nearly 100 overturned convictions tied to a disgraced Chicago cop.
The exonerations are the most recent in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office ongoing review of the misconduct of corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who extorted residents and drug dealers at the Ida B. Wells housing project on the city's South Side over the course of a decade.
Since she took office in 2016, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx has vacated 94 convictions involving Watts.
"I think it's important that we acknowledge the harm that has been caused, talk about what happened with these cases . . . It is the erosion of the trust in our justice system when we allow those to be wrongfully convicted based on the misdeeds of corrupt law enforcement," Foxx said in a press conference Tuesday.
Watts and his colleague, officer Kallatt Mohammed, were arrested in 2012 when they tried to shake down a drug dealer who was an FBI informant. The two pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2013. Watts was sentenced to 22 months and Mohammed received 18 months.
Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer for The Exoneration Project, a pro bono law clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, began working with people convicted by Watts in 2015. He said a total of 95 convictions against 75 people have been vacated in recent years, representing a cumulative 235 years of prison time.
"Unfortunately, sadly, Chicago has such a rich history of corruption. As far as scale - number of people and years that it went on - there's certainly nothing that surpasses the Watts scandal. The sheer number of people he harmed is impossible to quantify," Tepfer said.
Tepfer said he has 96 more claims that are awaiting review. In some cases, Watts planted up to 50 grams of cocaine or heroin on his clients, Tepfer said.
"Watts and his team were rogue officers who were unsupervised and were making arrests," Tepfer said. "The police were there acting as criminals, instead of trying to prevent criminal activity. I have stories of clients who were just visiting their grandparents or friends ... and just got stopped and detained for no reason and were framed when they wouldn't cooperate."
Tepfer said one of his clients had a conviction vacated that dates back to 2002. Other clients said Watts framed them as early as 1999, according to Tepfer.
The earliest law enforcement investigation of Watts dates to 2004, Tepfer said. Chicago courts began overturning convictions in cases involving Watts in 2016. The following year, the state's attorney's office vacated the convictions of 15 men.
"Everyone knew it was going on," Tepfer said. "The city ignored it. The Chicago police ignored it - in fact, they covered it up. Whistleblower cops were retaliated against."
Fifteen officers associated with Watts and his unit have been placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation. County prosecutors no longer call 10 officers associated with Watts as witnesses in criminal cases out of concerns about their credibility, according to the state's attorney's office.
The 12 people whose convictions were vacated Tuesday declined to comment to USA TODAY.
Watts' crimes follow a long legacy of corruption among Chicago police officers.
Infamous former CPD Commander Jon Burge was accused of torturing more than a hundred criminal suspects into confessions throughout the 70s and 80s. Burge was white, and most of his victims were black. He was fired from the department in 1993 and served time in prison from 2011-2014.
Now-retired Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara has been accused by more than 50 people of framing them for murder from the 80s through early 2000s on the city's West Side. At least 20 people have been exonerated in cases investigated by Guevara. Many spent decades in prison.
Deon Willis, 45, was arrested by Watts twice - in 2002 and in 2008 - and served two and a half years in prison. He had been living at Ida B. Wells with his mother and two younger brothers.
Willis said Watts first arrested him for possession of heroin when he was 18 years old. He had been buying a bag of potato chips from a neighbor when Watts, Mohammed and others cornered him, according to court filings.
"At first, I didn't even know what they were sending me to jail for. Why you putting handcuffs on me?" Willis said. "I'd never been in county jail. I didn't know how to cope with it. It was probably one of the worst days of my life."
While he was in prison, Willis missed the birth of his second daughter, and his mother fell ill. "It was hell for my family," he said.
Willis was released about a year and a half later but struggled to find work.
"Coming back with an 'x' on my back, it was hard for me to get a job," he said.
Willis went to the city's Office of Professional Standards to report Watts, but there was a line out the door and Willis didn't want to wait, according to court filings. Watts later threatened retailiation against Willis.
Willis said he and other residents learned Watts' shift schedule and stayed inside their homes when Watts was on duty.
In 2008, Willis was at a barbeque with other residents when several cop cars pulled up.
"They rounded everyone up in a circle, and they took their pics. And I said under my breath, 'Here we go again,'" Willis said. "I wanted to kill myself."
Willis served another year in prison. When he got out, he started delivering packages for Amazon. Willis still lives in Bronzeville, the neighborhood where the Ida B. Wells housing project once stood.
Willis, who was represented by lawyers with the Exoneration Project, had his convictions overturned in November, 2018.
"It was fresh air, Willis said. "(My family) is happy I'm home and here. We're moving forward."
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago police misconduct: Kim Foxx vacates Ronald Watts convictions