Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Victims of Criminal Cops in Chicago Are Fighting to Overturn Their Wrongful Convictions

In “Code of Silence,” a four-part investigation published in The Intercept last October, I reported on a massive criminal enterprise within the Chicago Police Department. That reporting was based in large part on the accounts of Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria, Chicago narcotics officers detailed to the FBI to investigate Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team, who they alleged were major players in the drug trade in South Side public housing. Spalding and Echeverria charged that senior police officials disclosed their identities within the department and ordered a campaign of retaliation against them in an effort to subvert the investigation.

There was hardly a time during Watts’ 18-year career when he and his team were not under investigation by one or more agencies; among them, the FBI, the CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, the DEA, the ATF, and the Cook County States Attorney’s Office. Yet those investigations yielded little. In the end, Watts and his partner Kallatt Mohammed were caught in an FBI sting, taking $5,200 from a confidential informant they believed to be a drug courier. Convicted in 2013 on a single count of stealing government property, Watts served a sentence of 22 months and Mohammed a sentence of 18 months. No other members of the team were criminally charged or otherwise disciplined; several, including Nichols and Leano, remain on the force and one has been promoted to sergeant.

However limited the charge and light the sentences, the fact that Watts and Mohammed were convicted, in combination with the documentary record generated by Spalding and Echeverria’s whistleblower lawsuit, which was settled by the city of Chicago for $2 million, created a beachhead from which civil rights attorneys at the Exoneration Project have successfully challenged the convictions of several individuals who were convicted based on testimony by Watts and his crew.

To date, there have been four cases in which convictions have been overturned and certificates of innocence issued: Ben Baker (twice), Clarissa Glenn, and Lionel White. These cases have certain common elements. In each case Watts or members of his team arrested the individual because he or she refused to cooperate with their criminal purposes. They fabricated evidence, and then conspired to support the arrest by falsifying official reports and making false statements under oath.

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