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Earl Lewis

Summary of Watts Scandal
On January 2, 2005, 22-year-old Earl Lewis went to visit his mother at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois. While he was there, he borrowed $1,000 from her. At about 8:30 p.m., as he was walking through the building lobby on his way out, Lewis stopped to chat with 20-year-old Rudy Clark, whom he knew as “Face.”

At about the same time, police officers led by Sgt. Ronald Watts charged into the lobby. Some people fled. Lewis and Clark did not because, they later said, they weren’t doing anything wrong.

Watts and fellow officer Alvin Jones arrested them and accused Lewis of selling two baggies of cocaine to Clark.

In the police report of the arrest, Jones reported confiscating $370 from Lewis. The remaining $630 was never accounted for and was believed to have been stolen by the officers.

On February 1, 2005, a preliminary hearing was held before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Wilbur Crooks.

Jones testified that as he approached Lewis and Clark, Lewis was facing him and Clark had his back to him. Jones said he saw Lewis hand two baggies of cocaine to Clark, and Clark gave some money to Lewis.

At the conclusion of the brief hearing, Judge Crooks found probable cause to charge Lewis. Judge Crooks said there was not sufficient evidence against Clark and dismissed the case against him.

On March 1, 2005, Lewis pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Lewis said he pled guilty even though he was innocent because he feared receiving a harsher sentence if he was convicted after a trial.

In 2012, Watts and fellow officer Kallat 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. In January 2021, Jones was stripped of his police powers and placed on administrative leave.

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 (CIU) 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 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 April 22, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, Lewis’s conviction, along with the convictions of more than 40 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, were vacated and dismissed. By that time, more than 200 convictions had been dismissed in the corruption scandal. Lewis subsequently received a certificate of innocence, and was awarded $45,000 in compensation from the state of Illlinois. He filed a federal lawsuit in September 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/27/2022
Last Updated: 5/19/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:2 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No