In what is believed to be the first mass exoneration in Cook County history, prosecutors on Thursday plan to drop all charges against 15 men who alleged they were framed by corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew, reports the Chicago Tribune. The announcement to vacate the convictions was expected during a morning hearing before Chief Criminal Court Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., according to a statement from Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office. It 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’d been working as an FBI informant.
A review of the cases by the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit “has shown a pattern of narcotics arrests that raise serious concerns about the validity of the resulting convictions,” a spokesman for Foxx said in a written statement. Joshua Tepfer, the lead attorney for the 15 men, praised the “unprecedented” action by Foxx’s office but said the cases were “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to cases tainted by Watts. He cited the more than 400 convictions by Watts’ team “that are unaccounted for.” Since last year, the Tribune has published several stories detailing Watts’ decade-long run of corruption.