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Phillip Thomas

Other Cook County Drug Exonerations
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On May 14, 2007, Chicago police officers arrested 47-year-old Phillip Thomas. They claimed they saw him attempting to stuff packages of heroin and narcotics into a hole in the wall above a doorway in the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois.

On January 17, 2008, Thomas, who represented himself without a lawyer, went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court before Judge Stanley Sacks and a jury.

Officer Alvin Jones testified that he and officer Elsworth Smith Jr. were conducting surveillance at the rear of one of the buildings in the complex when they saw a woman yelling “Knock Out!” and “X Box.” Jones said the terms were street names for cocaine and heroin.

Jones said that after watching numerous people enter and leave the building, he radioed other officers, and he and Smith entered the building. As they approached, they heard numerous shouts of “Clean up! Clean up!” which he said were warnings that the police were arriving.

Jones said that he and Smith saw no one inside the first or second floors. As they came to the third floor, Jones said they saw Thomas stuffing four plastic bags containing 100 baggies of heroin and 6 baggies of crack cocaine into a hole in the cinder block wall.

During cross-examination, Thomas showed Jones several pictures of the hole and suggested that it was too small to fit the more than 100 baggies of drugs. Thomas also asked if Jones remembered that after he was arrested, Jones’s supervisor, Sgt. Ronald Watts, arrived and took him aside. Thomas asked Jones if he remembered that Watts began slapping Thomas in the head, demanding that he provide names of people who sold drugs.

The prosecution objected to the question and Jones did not answer.

“Did you plant any drugs on anyone that day?”

“No,” Jones said.

When Smith took the stand, Thomas put the question to him.

“You put the drugs on me because I wouldn’t give somebody up,” Thomas continued. “Didn’t you ask me to turn somebody in?”

Smith did not reply.

Thomas asked Smith, “Did you hear the sound when they slapped me all upside the head, asking me questions, asking me to give people up?”

“No,” Smith testified.

After the prosecution rested its case, Thomas called his wife, Vanessa, who told the jury that she was a health care assistant. She said Thomas made a living selling snacks, soda, pastries, potato chips, and cigarette lighters from a cart near the housing development and in nearby parks.

She testified that they struggled to pay their bills, did not own a car, and that Thomas had $9.81 in his commissary account at the Cook County Jail.

“Are we living above our means?” Thomas asked his wife.

“Nope,” she replied.

“Am I a drug dealer?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

She told the jury that at the end of each day, Thomas brought home what money he had made, and they usually ate half of the food that was left over for their dinner.

“We had no drug dealing money, did we?” Thomas asked.

“No, we had hardly—we just made it,” she said.

During closing argument, the prosecution argued that the officers were credible and Thomas had not presented evidence rebutting the officers’ testimony.

Thomas told the jury, “If I had this amount of drugs…I had to sell it to somebody. Nobody was arrested (for buying) drugs. I had no money. Not only did I not have any money, the State thinks that you guys are naïve enough to believe that I would just be standing there waiting for the police, with my hand in there, while some…woman is at the back door…yelling the phrase: ‘Clean up, clean up, the police are coming.’

“Everybody scatters except me,” Thomas said. “I am asking you, ladies and gentleman, do not fall for this trap. I am not guilty.”

The prosecution objected, and Judge Sacks instructed Thomas to argue the evidence, not protest his innocence.

“Let me rephrase that,” Thomas said. “I’m not a professional. I’m just fighting for my life.”

In rebuttal, the prosecution told the jury the officers had performed “a public service” and that Thomas was “like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar.”

After about 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury convicted Thomas of possession of narcotics. Judge Sacks sentenced him to six years in prison.

Thomas was released from prison on November 7, 2011.

Just a few months later, in 2012, Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed were caught on tape stealing money from a man they believed was a drug courier, but who was in fact working as a confidential FBI informant. In 2013, Watts and Mohammed pled guilty in U.S. District Court to taking money from the informant. Mohammed was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

Federal prosecutors said Watts “used his position as a sergeant with the Chicago Police Department to shield his own criminal activity from law enforcement scrutiny. He recruited another CPD officer into his crimes, stealing drug money and extorting protections from the drug dealers who terrorized the community that he (Watts) had sworn to protect.”

In 2006, Ben Baker was convicted twice—once alone and a second time with his wife, Clarissa Glenn, on charges of narcotics possession based on false testimony from Watts. In 2015, Joshua Tepfer, an attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago School of Law, filed a petition to vacate Baker’s first conviction, citing the corruption of Watts and his unit. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed in January 2016 that Baker’s first conviction should be vacated, and the petition was granted. Later in 2016, a petition filed on behalf of Baker and Glenn also was granted.

In December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Lionel White Sr., another defendant who claimed he had been falsely convicted based on the corruption of Watts and his team. “The full known scope of the corrupt, more-than-decade-long criminal enterprise of Sergeant Watts…shows that Sergeant Watts led a tactical team of Chicago police officers that engaged in systematic extortion, bribery, and other related crimes…from as far back as the late 1990s through 2012,” the motion said.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that White’s conviction should be vacated and dismissed the charge.

In November 2017, following a re-investigation of numerous other cases involving Watts, the Cook County State's Attorney's conviction integrity unit dismissed 17 convictions involving 15 more defendants, including Thomas and Lionel White Jr., the son of Lionel White Sr.

By 2018, more than 50 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

In 2018, Thomas filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Chicago. He also was granted a certificate of innocence, which resulted in an award of $97,075 in compensation from the state of Illinois.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/28/2018
Last Updated: 3/30/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:6 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:47
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No