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7 Chicago officers given desk duty as cases linked to corrupt ex-cop are reviewed

7 Chicago officers given desk duty as cases linked to corrupt ex-cop are reviewed
Joshua Tepfer, with the Exoneration Project, is hugged by Leonard Gipson at a news conference Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. Gipson was one of 15 men whose convictions were overturned. (Jose M. Osorio / TNS)

Seven Chicago police officers who were once part of a crew led by a corrupt sergeant have been removed from their street duties while their conduct years ago is investigated.

The decision to place the officers on desk duty came Thursday night, 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. Earlier in the week, charges were dropped against two other men who had served decades in prison for murder.

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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 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 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.

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.

It marked 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.

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.

Watts has repeatedly been accused of forcing residents and drug dealers alike to pay a "protection" tax and framing those who refused to do so with bogus criminal charges. In case after case, when Watts' targets complained — to the Police Department or in court — judges, prosecutors and internal affairs investigators all believed the testimony of Watts and other officers over their accusers, records show.

Despite mounting allegations, Watts continued to operate for years amid a lengthy police internal affairs division probe as well as investigations by the state's attorney's office and the FBI, according to court records. When Watts was finally caught, it was on relatively minor federal charges, and he was given a break at sentencing by a federal judge who talked tough but in the end handed him 22 months in prison.

Crepeau, Meisner and Gorner write for the Chicago Tribune.

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