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Leonard Saunders

Summary of Watts Scandal
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On April 13, 2004, 38-year-old Leonard Saunders was hanging out with friends in a parking lot at 538 E. 38th Place in Chicago, Illinois, part of the Ida B. Wells public housing development. Several police officers led by Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts approached and ordered Saunders to get on the ground.

Saunders refused because he was not carrying anything illegal. Watts grabbed him and “pushed me up against his car,” Saunders later said. “He searched me and pulled out the money I had in my pocket. It was approximately $250. He put the money back in my pocket. He then handcuffed me and put me in the back of his car. I asked him what I was being arrested for. He wouldn’t tell me why he was arresting me.”

As they drove to the police station, “Watts told me that if I didn’t pay him, he was going to take me to jail,” Saunders said. “I asked him what I did to warrant going to jail. That’s when Watts told me that he had a bag of drugs he was going to put on me.”

Saunders insisted he did not have any drugs. Then Watts then said that “he was going to take me to McDonald’s because it was going to be my last time for a while.”

They pulled into a McDonald’s where Watts bought Saunders a Big Mac, fries, and a Coca-Cola.

“At the station, Watts put me in a room and let me eat the McDonald’s that he had bought me,” Saunders said. Then, Watts charged him with possession of five baggies of heroin.

On September 1, 2004, Saunders pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

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 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 (CIU) began investigating the cases and agreed that the convictions should be vacated and dismissed. By the end of 2021, more than 90 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On February 1, 2022, Saunders’s conviction, along with the convictions of 18 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, was vacated and the case was dismissed following an investigation by the CIU. Saunders was awarded a certificate of innocence in April 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/12/2022
Last Updated: 4/22/2022
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Convicted:2004
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:3 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No