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Darnell Howard

Summary of the Watts scandal
On January 12, 2007, 23-year-old Darnell Howard was in an apartment at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois, playing video games with friends when officers loudly banged on the door. When one of Howard's friends said she would not open the door without seeing a warrant, Chicago police officers working under the command of Sgt. Ronald Watts threatened her and pushed their way in.

One of the officers then produced a bag of drugs and falsely claimed Howard threw them out a window. The officers offered to let Howard go if he gave information about the drug trade. Howard offered to let the officers have the money they had taken from him if they would let him go.

Watts then arrived. Howard told Watts to just take his money and let him go, but Watts said Howard did not have enough money.

Howard was charged with possession of 85 grams of cocaine and 30 grams of heroin. On March 7, 2007, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to six years in prison, which was later modified to boot camp.

In 2012, Watts and a 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 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 trials 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 the convictions should be vacated and dismissed. By the end of 2020, more than 80 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On November 4, 2021, Howard’s conviction, along with convictions of four others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, was vacated and dismissed following an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit.

In January 2022, Howard was granted a certificate of innocence and he was subsequently awarded $45,000 in state compensation. In February 2022, Howard filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the Chicago police department.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/6/2021
Last Updated: 7/1/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No