New wrongful-conviction suits could cost Chicago as it tries to move past era of police coercion

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, right, leaves court after being sentenced to 22 months in prison in 2013 for stealing money from an FBI informant.
(Phil Velasquez / Associated Press)

For years, the Chicago Police Department has been trying to move past a shameful chapter characterized by coercion and brutality, shelling out multimillion-dollar settlements to men who were tortured into confessing to serious crimes they didn’t commit.

But as the number of cases linked to disgraced former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge dwindles, a flurry of drug and murder convictions linked to two other former officers has been overturned. And the vindicated inmates are walking out of prison ready to sue.

Chicago has already paid out well over $670 million in police misconduct cases in the last 15 years, but that expenditure could skyrocket due to current and future lawsuits from people who say they were framed by former Sgt. Ronald Watts or Det. Reynaldo Guevara.


“We’ve had all kinds of police corruption, we’ve had police torture cases, but we’ve never had so many cases where there is clear evidence that police actually set people up for crimes they didn’t commit,” said Marshall Hatch, a prominent minister and activist on the city’s west side.

“Watts and Guevara handled tons more cases than Burge,” said David Erickson, a former state appellate judge who teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

In just two years, at least 11 men who alleged Guevara framed them have had their murder convictions thrown out, bringing to 18 the number of men whose convictions were tossed amid allegations of brutality and coercion. At least a dozen more post-conviction petitions are pending.

At least 12 of the 18 have sued, and more lawsuits are sure to follow.

The now-retired Guevara has not been charged with any crimes. He has helped inmates win freedom by repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination or insisting he couldn’t remember facts, thus forcing prosecutors to dismiss charges in several cases.

Jacques Rivera, whose lawsuit will be heard in court Monday, alleges he was convicted of murder after Guevara and other officers “conspired to ... manipulate the identification of the sole eyewitness to the attack,” a 12-year-old boy.

Since last fall, the drug convictions of nearly three dozen men — all arrested by Watts and his subordinates — have been thrown out. More could follow.


The University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project has asked for another 70 convictions tied to Watts to be overturned. Joshua Tepfer, an attorney for the group, said Watts made more than 500 arrests before he was sentenced to prison in 2013 for stealing money from an FBI informant.

“What you have is years and years of systematic corruption that was just ignored and swept under the rug by the CPD and the city that they are having to answer for now,” Tepfer said.

Attorneys predict — and city officials fear — that Chicago’s tab for police misconduct is about to climb just as the city seemed close to closing the books on cases tied to Burge and his so-called Midnight Crew.

“I thought we had turned a corner,” said Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. “It looks like we have not.”

Some think the cost of settling new cases will top the $115 million paid out to Burge victims. In 2009, a jury awarded $21 million to a man who spent 11 years in prison before he was retried and acquitted after witnesses testified that Guevara intimidated them into falsely identifying the man as the killer. The city later agreed to pay $16.4 million.

The city must pay the first $15 million of any award or settlement before its insurance pays.


“Now that people understand with all these videotapes that the situation out there is real and believe cops would do this, you can put a multiplier in there,” Brookins said.

Every time charges are dropped against somebody who alleges Guevara framed them, attorneys say, appeals in other Guevara cases become stronger.

“With Guevara, we put together this pattern that we can use to buttress individual cases,” said Karen Daniel, director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The organization represented Gabriel Solache, who spent nearly two decades in prison for a double murder before a judge threw out his confession to Guevara. Prosecutors dropped charges against Solache in December.

Jose Maysonet spent nearly 27 years in prison for a double murder in a Guevara case before prosecutors dropped the charges against him. Maysonet’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, said he expects Guevara cases will be more expensive for the city than those associated with Burge because the public knows more than ever before.

“The more times the city gets caught, the price goes up,” he said.