In rare mass exoneration, 15 drug cases tied to corrupt Chicago ex-cop are thrown out

In the wake of the mass exoneration Thursday of 15 men, attorneys vowed to continue to review potentially hundreds of convictions tied to a corrupt former Chicago police sergeant and his crew.

The lead attorney for the 15 men whose drug 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 Atty. Kim Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit whose investigation led to the dismissals, promised a careful review of remaining cases tied to former Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew, though he declined to say how many that might involve.

Rotert, who took the post this last 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 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 5th 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 drug 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.

Among the petitioners whose case was overturned Thursday was Leonard Gipson, who filed a complaint with the Chicago Police Department in 2003 alleging the sergeant had framed him on a drug charge because he had refused to pay "protection" money.

Gipson's complaint went nowhere. Four months later, with his drug case pending, Gipson was visiting his girlfriend in the Ida B. Wells public housing complex when he again ran into Watts, who had been notified of the complaint against him.

"Let me see if you can bond off on this," Watts said to Gipson before handcuffing and planting 28 grams of heroin on him, Gipson alleged in the petition. After two years in jail awaiting trial, he pleaded guilty on the advice of his attorney, who noted it was his word against the police's.

On Thursday, Gipson was among those in court to witness history. He had three drugs convictions tied to Watts thrown out.

“Watts always told me, ‘If you’re not going to pay me, I’m going to get you,’” Gipson, 36, told reporters. “And every time I ran into him, he’d put drugs on me. Every time.”

Crepeau and Meisner write for the Chicago Tribune.

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