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Vernell Breeland

Summary of Watts Scandal
On March 22, 2004, 23-year-old Vernell Breeland was playing dice and talking to his sister on his cell phone in the lobby of a building in the Ida B. Wells public housing development. Without warning, Chicago police officers grabbed him from behind and threw him against the wall. Breeland’s cell phone clattered to the floor.

As the officers held Breeland, Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, their supervisor, approached and began asking questions about a “domestic situation” between a woman named Charlene and another woman. Charlene was the best friend of Breeland’s sister. The other woman was Watts’s girlfriend.

Breeland was familiar with Watts. “On multiple occasions, Watts had stopped me, patted me down, and taken any money I had on me,” Breeland later said. “I had witnessed Watts take money from other people on several occasions.”

“Watts knew that I knew Charlene and he was looking for her,” Breeland said. “I told him I didn’t know where she was. He tried to argue with me and kept saying that Charlene was my sister’s best friend and he knew that I knew where she was. I kept telling him I didn’t know. He then told me I was going to jail.”

Watts searched him and found nothing illegal. He then put Breeland into his police car. “I kept asking him what I was being arrested for, but Watts wouldn’t tell me,” Breeland said.

Meanwhile, Breeland’s sister, Rebecca, arrived. She had been alarmed by the sound of Breeland’s phone falling to the floor and the commotion in the background. She asked Watts what was going on. Watts handed her a bag containing some of Breeland’s belongings and drove away.

At the police station, Breeland was handcuffed to a bench while an arrest report was prepared. “Watts pulled out a bag of drugs and said they were mine,” Breeland said.

On June 9, 2004, Breeland pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to two 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, Breeland’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. Breeland was awarded a certificate of innocence in April 2022. In July 2022, the Illinois Court of Claims awarded him $45,000 in state compensation. He later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/14/2022
Last Updated: 2/20/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:2 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