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Donald Johnson

Summary of Watts Scandal
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On June 3, 2005, 41-year-old Donald Johnson was stopped by a Chicago police officer as Johnson was leaving the apartment of a girlfriend at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois.

The officer handcuffed Johnson and brought him to the lobby where several other men were being detained by other officers, including Sgt. Ronald Watts. The officers lined the men up against the wall.

“One of the officers asked where the drugs were,” Johnson later said. “No one said anything at first, so I said, ‘I don’t have any drugs, officer.’”

Johnson said, “A short, heavy, dark-skinned officer approached me and told me to ‘shut my [obscenity] mouth.’ I did as I was told.”

“That officer then pulled out a bag of drugs and pretended to search me,” Johnson said. “He then held the drugs up in the air and said, ‘Look what we have here.’”

“I told him those drugs weren’t mine,” Johnson said, “and he hit me right in the mouth.”

Johnson was taken to the police station and charged with possession of 41 baggies of heroin and 25 baggies of cocaine. On July 8, 2005, Johnson pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to one year 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 February 2022, more than 100 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On February 8, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, Johnson’s conviction and the convictions of 13 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers were vacated, and the charges were dismissed. Johnson was awarded a certificate of innocence in April 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/14/2022
Last Updated: 4/22/2022
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:1 year
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:41
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No