Vacating Convictions from Crooked Chicago Cops

David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

A group of corrupt police officers on Chicago’s South Side had been framing and extorting residents for years. Then they planted drugs on the wrong people: Ben Baker and his girlfriend Clarissa Glenn.

In The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman describes how Glenn’s determination to exonerate her husband helped build a case against police sergeant Ronald Watts and his brazenly crooked cronies. Glenn’s campaign consumed her, and Baker’s absence left their children without a father for too many years. Not only was Baker eventually freed, the state attorney overturned many of Watts’ other tainted convictions. One difficult question remains: how many more innocent people still wallow in prison?

No one knows how many men Watts and his officers framed, in part because so many of them pleaded guilty. Watts’s officers at times planted such large quantities of drugs on Wells residents that they were charged with a Class X felony, the highest-level felony after first-degree murder. If the defendant went to trial and lost, he faced up to thirty years in prison. Phillip Thomas, who sold candy from a cart in the Wells, recalled that when he told his public defender that Watts’s officers had planted drugs on him, “she made it quite clear that she didn’t believe me and that my best bet was to plead guilty.” Ignoring her advice, he represented himself at trial. He lost, and was sentenced to six years. Shaun James told his public defender a similar story, and, he said, “She’s looking at me like I’m crazy. She said, ‘Ain’t no judge is ever going to believe that.’ ” James and his co-defendant, Taurus Smith, both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two years’ probation.

Clarissa and Ben decided to fight the cases against them: Ben’s, from when he was arrested alone, and Ben and Clarissa’s, from when they were arrested together. They assumed that, because the state’s attorney’s office was aware of Watts’s corruption, it would eventually drop the charges against them. David Navarro, the prosecutor who met with Clarissa and Ben in the spring of 2005, told me that he believed them, and spent months investigating their claims about Watts, but he couldn’t prove the allegations. “It’s very difficult to prove a case when your only witness is the guy who has a pending case against him, and that guy has a criminal background,” he said.

Read the story