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Frank Saunders

Other Cook County Drug Exonerations
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On March 28, 2007, 25-year-old Frank Saunders, who had just been released from house arrest, went to see his grandmother on her birthday. On the way, he stopped at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois, to visit some friends.

As he arrived, someone yelled, “Clean up!”—a warning to people dealing drugs that the police were coming. Saunders knew that Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and the officers under his command planted drugs on people and stole their cash—he once saw a man pay Watts $7,000 in cash. But Saunders did not run because he had no drugs on him.

However, Watts and other officers took Saunders into custody and demanded to know where the woman who sounded the alarm ran. When Saunders said he did not know, Watts hit him in the head with a pistol and told him he was going to jail.

The officers kept looking for the woman and demanding that Saunders tell them where she went. When he continued to deny knowing where the woman was, Officer Kallatt Mohammed punched Saunders in the abdomen.

About an hour later, the officers took Saunders to the police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue. There, Watts declared, “I would have let your dumb ass go if you told me where she went.”

Saunders called his girlfriend, Aleka Stanton, whom he later married. He wept as he told her what happened and that he was being arrested falsely on a charge of possession of 95 baggies of cocaine. Stanton later provided a sworn affidavit verifying Saunders’s statements.

On May 7, 2007, at his very first appearance in Cook County Circuit Court after his arrest, Saunders explained what happened to his public defender. The lawyer said the judge had offered him a deal of four years in prison, and that he risked much more time in prison if he went to trial.

Saunders took the deal and was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released on May 20, 2009.

In 2012, Watts and 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 Saunders 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, Saunders 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: 12/7/2018
Last Updated: 3/30/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:4 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No