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Shaun James

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations with no crime
On August 18, 2007, undercover narcotics police working under Sgt. Ronald Watts arrested 27-year-old Shaun “Smoke” James on charges of possession and sale of heroin and cocaine at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois.

This was not the first time James had been arrested by these officers. In 2004, Watts and members of his team arrested James and 17-year-old Taurus Smith. At that time, Smith and James claimed they had no drugs. They were marched into the lobby of one of the buildings in the development and held there. Meanwhile, Watts left and soon returned with packages of drugs in his hand.

“I’m tired of playing with their ass,” Watts had said. “Put that shit on Smoke and him,” he added.

James had pled guilty and was placed on probation, but later was sent to prison for a year after his probation was revoked.

Three years later, Officers Alvin Jones and Doug Nichols claimed that they came to a doorway and saw James inside with drugs in one hand and cash in the other. Seven people were lined up, the officers said, waiting to make their purchases.

James was arrested. Police claimed they found 85 baggies of heroin and 23 baggies of crack cocaine that James had tossed over a doorway as he tried to run up the stairs to escape.

A year later, on August 22, 2008, Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Doody Jr. held a hearing on a defense motion to quash the arrest. Jones and Nichols testified that they came to the building with Watts and other officers. They both said they saw James toss the drugs through the opening at the top of a locked door that led to the basement. After taking James into custody, they summoned the building manager to open the locked door and recovered the drugs.

James testified that he had lived at the development previously, but no longer did after he was arrested and harassed by the Watts crew. He said that after he was released from prison and came back, Watts demanded a payoff of $1,500 to leave him alone. James said he had paid Watts $800, but had not paid the remaining $700.

On the day of his arrest in 2007, James said he was visiting the building. He said he had stopped on the fifth floor to purchase a container of juice, a bag of potato chips, and two cigarettes from a woman who sold such goods to people who didn’t want to walk to a store.

He said he was walking down the stairs when someone came running up and said the police were downstairs. “I said, ‘All right. Cool. I don’t have nothing on me’ and kept proceeding down the stairs.”

When he reached the first floor, Officer Nichols came up and asked who had run up the stairs. “I told him I didn’t know,” James testified.

James’s attorney, assistant Cook County public defender Carol Milder, asked, “Why did you do that?”

“Because I have been knowing Officer Nichols and Jones,” James said. “I just know how they is.”

“What do you mean?” Milder asked.

“They are dirty cops,” James said.

“What was Officer Nichols’s reaction to that?” Milder asked.

“He said, ‘You (obscenity) lying, Smoke….Then he grabbed me by the collar and (took) me outside the building. He was telling me, I can’t believe you are…lying to me.”

At that point, James said Watts and Officer Jones entered the building, leading the seven people whom they said had been lined up to buy drugs from James. James said Watts turned over responsibility for the seven people to Jones and Nichols, and led James to a back hallway.

James said, “He just started talking to me about the money that the building had made (for Watts) that day. He was telling me (to) give (him) money.” James said Watts demanded the name of the person who ran up the stairs and said that if he didn’t provide it, James would be arrested. Watts noted that James was on probation. “You can’t afford this case,” Watts said.

James said, “I told him, ‘Man, I didn’t see nobody.’ I showed him what was in my hands. I had potato chips, juice and the cigarettes. He smacked everything out of my hand. He told me, ‘Man, I don’t have time for this shit today, Smoke. You know everything that is going on about this building. Man, you are going to sit up here and play games.’”

James testified, “He said, ‘I am going to send you away for a long time this time and (you can think) about loyalty while you are back in the penitentiary.’” James said that when he refused to change his account, he was arrested.

James said there were no narcotics recovered behind the door leading to the basement and that the building manager was never called to the scene as the officers claimed.

The judge denied the motion to quash the arrest.

A year later, on August 4, 2009, James pled guilty to two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to six years in prison and was given credit for 738 days in jail prior to that date.

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 badge and 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 protection payments 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 Law School, 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 (CIU) 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 CIU 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 CIU dismissed 17 convictions involving 15 more defendants, including the convictions of James and Smith for their 2004 arrest, as well as the conviction of Lionel White Jr., the son of Lionel White Sr.

By the fall of 2020, about 75 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed. On December 15, 2020, following an investigation by the CIU, the convictions of James and five others were vacated and dismissed.

James was granted a certificate of innocence in February 2021 qualifying him for compensation from the state of Illinois. He was subsequently awarded $52,000 in state compensation. He also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/19/2021
Last Updated: 12/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No