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James Randolph

Summary of Watts Scandal
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On February 8, 2022, James Randolph was exonerated in Cook County Circuit Court of two drug convictions that the prosecution acknowledged had been secured by corrupt Chicago police officers.

Randolph was first arrested on July 19, 2003. Then 30 years old, he was riding his bike to buy drugs near the intersection of East 45th Street and South Evans Avenue. When he neared the area, before he so much as spoke to anyone, a police officer working with Sgt. Ronald Watts stopped him, handcuffed him and put him on the ground.

At that point, other officers, including Watts and Kallat Mohammed, arrived. Some of the officers went into a nearby building. Two men were brought out of the building but both were let go. Randolph was taken to the police station.

“At the station, Watts told me words to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, we know you were just there to shop,’” Randolph said later. “I took this to mean that I would not be charged with selling drugs because the officers knew I was trying to buy drugs and I was not selling drugs.”

However, another officer later told Randolph, “They’re going to do you.” Randolph recalled, “I took this to mean the officers were going to falsely charge me with selling drugs.”

And they did.

Randolph was charged with possession of 238 baggies of heroin with intent to sell. “I later learned that the officers claimed that they saw me exchange drugs for money six times and that each time, I retrieved a bag of drugs from a plastic bag under a nearby porch,” Randolph said. “These claims are absolutely false.”

He said that not only was he not selling drugs, but “There were no porches at the spot where I was arrested.”

On March 10, 2004, Randolph pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of heroin. Randolph said, “I knew the judge or a jury would not believe my story…I also knew that if I was convicted at trial, I could get a longer sentence.”

Even with his plea, Randolph was sentenced to six years in prison.

After he was released on parole, Randolph moved into an apartment at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois. On November 14, 2006, Randolph was at the building, gathering signatures to get Toni Preckwinkle on the ballot to run for re-election for a seat on the Chicago City Council.

“Watts and members of his team came to the building and took me and several other people inside 527 East Browning [Avenue],” Randolph said. “Watts ordered us to empty our pockets onto the ground. I followed his order. I did not have anything illegal in my pockets.

“Watts then went upstairs and when he came back, the officers arrested me,” Randolph said. “At the station, I learned I was being falsely charged for drug possession.”

The police report of his arrest said that as the officer approached Randolph, he reached into his waistband and dropped a bag containing two bags of cocaine and one bag of heroin to the ground.

On December 27, 2006, Randolph pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to three months in prison. “I pleaded guilty to the false charges even though I was innocent…” Randolph said.

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, Randolph’s convictions and the convictions of 13 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers were vacated, and the charges were dismissed. Randolph was awarded a certificate of innocence in April 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/15/2022
Last Updated: 4/22/2022
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2003
Convicted:2004
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:6 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No