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Darnell Harris

Summary of Watts scandal
On March 3, 2008, 31-year-old Darnell Harris was visiting friends at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois when Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and fellow officers came to the door. After meeting privately with the resident of the apartment, Watts placed Harris in handcuffs.

When Harris asked why he was being arrested, Watts showed him nine baggies of cocaine. When Harris protested that the drugs were not his, Watts ignored him.

Harris was charged with possession of heroin under the name of Darnell Trabeck. The police report claimed that officers chased him in the stairs to the fifth floor of the building. There, they saw him attempting to toss the drugs down a garbage chute, but stopped him and recovered the drugs from his hand.

At the same time, Watts and other officers rounded up five other people in the lobby of the building. Ultimately, three of them were released and two others--Angelo Shenault Jr. and Trinere Johnson--were also charged with possession of narcotics.

On April 22, 2008, Shenault pled guilty to possession of narcotics. He was sentenced to two years and six months in prison. He was released on parole on December 2, 2008.

On June 4, 2008, Johnson pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of cocaine. She was sentenced to two years on probation.

On July 1, 2008, Harris pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

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 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 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. The convictions of Shenault and Johnson were among those vacated and dismissed.

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

In January 2022, Harris was granted a certificate of innocence. In July 2022, the Illinois Court of Claims awarded him $44,600 in state compensation. In November, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/6/2021
Last Updated: 12/11/2022
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2008
Sentence:2 years and 6 months
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No