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Darnell Martin

Summary of Watts Scandal
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On September 15, 2003, 22-year-old Darnell Martin was in the lobby of an Ida B. Wells public housing development building at 559 East Browning Avenue in Chicago, Illinois when police officers led by Sgt. Ronald Watts streamed in and began detaining people. Martin was searched and released when nothing illegal was found.

Later that day, Martin was in his second floor apartment when he heard a commotion in the hallway. He came out and walked down to the lobby. “I saw Watts and other officers, but didn’t think anything of it because I was not doing anything illegal and didn’t have any drugs on me,” Martin later said.

“Watts grabbed me and searched me,” Martin said. “He asked me about someone in a blue hoodie. I told him I didn’t know anything and I was just in my apartment. He told me [he] was going to take me to County [Jail].

“I told him he had just searched me earlier and knew I didn’t have anything on me,” Martin said. “He said he was going to put a bundle on me if I didn’t tell him what he wanted.”

At Watts’s direction, two other officers put Martin in the back of a police car. While Martin was sitting there, Watts approached with Martin’s brother, Willie. “Watts let Willie share a cigarette with me while I was still in the backseat of the car,” Martin said.

“I then heard Watts tell my brother that he would let me go if Willie would get Watts some drugs or guns,” Martin said. “Willie said he would try to do whatever he could to get me out.”

The officers then took Martin to the police station. “They handcuffed me to a bench,” Martin said. “While I was sitting there, Watts walked in and said to me, ‘I guess your brother can’t help you. Guess you’re going to County.’”

Martin was charged with possession of 19 baggies of cocaine. On January 30, 2004, Martin pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to probation for 18 months.

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, Martin’s conviction and the convictions of 13 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers were vacated, and the charges were dismissed. Martin 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:2003
Convicted:2004
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Probation
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No