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Derrick Lewis

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On July 3, 2004, 25-year-old Derrick Lewis was visiting his girlfriend in an apartment where she lived with her mother and sister at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois. All four were in the apartment when Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and other officers knocked on the door.

When they refused to open the door unless the officers produced a search warrant, Watts threatened to kick the door in. Lewis said they opened the door because there was nothing illegal in the apartment.

Watts and other officers entered and searched the apartment. After finding nothing, they took Lewis to the lobby of another building in the development where several other men were in handcuffs. Lewis was handcuffed and taken taken with the men to a police station, where he thought he was going to be charged with trespassing.

Instead, they were handcuffed to a bench. After a while, Watts came in and tossed several bags of drugs onto a table and announced that the drugs were theirs. He said, however, that the men could go free if they would provide information on the location of drugs and the names of drug dealers in the housing development. Lewis said he did not have any information, so he was charged with possession of 25 baggies of crack cocaine.

On July 25, 2005, Lewis went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court and chose to have his case decided by a judge without a jury. One of the officers from Watts’s team testified that he entered a hallway and Lewis fled, dropping a bag containing the 25 baggies of crack cocaine as he ran away.

Lewis was convicted of possession of a controlled substance after the one-day trial. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison.

Lewis was released on September 28, 2006. Nearly a year later, on September 24, 2007, Lewis was visiting a friend in a seventh floor apartment at the housing development when someone knocked on the door. When Lewis and his friend opened the door because they were expecting another friend, Watts and two other officers forced their way inside.

After a search of the apartment failed to turn up anything illegal, Lewis was handcuffed and taken into the hallway. There, officer Robert Gonzalez, a member of Watts’s team, pushed Lewis against a wall and punched him repeatedly in his abdomen and groin.

At the police station, Watts told Lewis that if he provided information on drugs and dealers at the development, he could go home. When Lewis said he didn’t have any information, he was charged with possession of heroin and cocaine. The arrest report said that Lewis was walking toward the entrance to a building in the complex and when the officers approached, he dropped a cigarette package containing the drugs.

Although Lewis told his attorney he was being framed, he took the lawyer’s advice and on November 16, 2007, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released on September 22, 2008.

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.

Beginning in December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed motions for new trial on behalf of dozens of men and women who claimed they were 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,” their motions said.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit began investigating the cases and agreed that convictions should be vacated and dismissed.

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

In December 2018, as part of a re-investigation of Lewis’s cases, his mother, Winnie Lewis, provided a sworn affidavit. She described how, prior to her son’s first arrest, he called her on his cell phone while police were searching the apartment. She said Derrick told her to record the call—that Watts was coming for him.

She said she heard Watts say, “Until you put my shit on the street, I will keep locking you up.”

Derrick replied, “You are taking drugs from drug dealers and trying to make us sell them. You are trying to get us killed. That stuff is marked.”

Watts replied that he didn’t care and said, “I’m going to keep locking you up until you put my shit on the street.”

Winnie said she then heard handcuffs clicking and Derrick said, “Hang up.” Watts then declared, “What the (obscenity) was that?”

She said she hung up and seconds later, her phone rang again—Watts was calling on Derrick’s phone, demanding that she provide her name. She said she refused.

Winnie said she took the tape to a lawyer and a complaint was filed with the Chicago Police Office of Professional Standards, the office responsible for investigating police misconduct. However, no action was taken.

In her affidavit, Winnie Lewis said she had known Watts for a long time. She said she worked several years for the Chicago Housing Authority, the city agency which over public housing including the Ida B. Wells complex.

“I tutored Watts when he was in the 8th grade,” she said. “At one point, after Watts became a cop, I confronted him and told him to leave my children alone.” He ignored her demand.

On February 11, 2019, both of Lewis’s convictions were vacated and dismissed, bringing the total to more than 60 convictions erased in the Watts corruption scandal. He subsequently was granted a certificate of innocence, clearing the way for him to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. In May 2016, Lewis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/22/2019
Last Updated: 5/17/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:6 years and 6 months
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