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Henry Thomas

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On December 4, 2006, 26-year-old Henry Thomas was walking from the grocery story to the Ida B. Wells public housing complex in Chicago, Illinois when a man wearing a ski mask approached and pulled out a handgun.

The man ordered Thomas into the lobby of a building at the housing complex. When they got inside, the man took off his mask and Thomas recognized him as Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts. At about the same time, other officers working with Watts brought several other men into the lobby. The men were searched and although nothing illegal was found, all of them were taken to a police station.

The men were handcuffed to a bench. After several hours, Watts approached and took packages of heroin and cocaine out of his pocket. He put it on a table and told Thomas he was putting the drugs on him.

Thomas pleaded with Watts not to arrest him for drugs he never possessed. This was not the first time that Thomas found himself in Watts’s crosshairs.

On February 5, 2003, Watts and fellow officers had raided the lobby, sending men running for the exits. Thomas, who was on crutches as he recovered from a recent car accident, stayed put. One of the officers grabbed Thomas and accused him of yelling “Clean up!” to warn people engaged in drug transactions that the police were coming.

Thomas and several other people had been taken to the same police station. There, Watts took a bag containing 95 baggies of cocaine out of his pocket and said he was putting it on Thomas for shouting a warning. Thomas pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of narcotics, was sentenced to four years in prison, and was released on August 8, 2006.

Just four months later, he was again charged with possession of cocaine after Watts agreed to split up the drugs—charging Thomas with the cocaine and putting the heroin on a different man.

On January 17, 2007, Thomas pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to another four years in prison. He was released on June 2, 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 November 2017, Thomas’s 2003 conviction was vacated and dismissed. He later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Chicago. He also was granted a certificate of innocence for his first conviction and was awarded $97,075 in compensation from the state of Illinois. He was also granted a certificate of innocence for his second conviction.

On February 11, 2019, his 2007 conviction was vacated and dismissed, bringing the total to more than 60 convictions erased in the Watts corruption scandal.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/22/2019
Last Updated: 3/31/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:4 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No