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Walter Thomas

Summary of Watts Scandal
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On August 13, 2003, 21-year-old Walter Thomas was outside his grandmother’s house at 3948 S. Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Illinois when Chicago police officers, including Sgt. Ronald Watts, pulled up.

Thomas began walking away because he had heard of Watts and his team. “People had told me that he was known to lock people up and put drugs on them even if they didn’t have any,” Thomas later said. “I was alone, had no drugs on me, and was not doing anything illegal.”

“As I was walking away, a couple of officers, including Watts, grabbed me,” Thomas said. “I got lippy with the officers,” saying that he hadn’t done anything. “Watts said something like ‘Because I’m a sergeant,’” Thomas said. “He also told me that if I didn’t shut up, he would beat me.”

Thomas was taken to the police station and charged with possession of five baggies of heroin. On August 20, 2004, Thomas pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

In 2012, Watts and a 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.

On February 16, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, Thomas’s conviction, along with the convictions of 14 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, was vacated and the charge was dismissed. These dismissals raised to nearly 150 the total of convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit. Thomas was awarded a certificate of innocence in April 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/14/2022
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:2 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No