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Michael Conley

Summary of Watts Scandal
On January 29, 2007, 33-year-old Michael Conley was waiting for a bus at 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, when police officers working with Sgt. Ronald Watts stopped him and searched him. Although they found nothing illegal, they arrested him.

He was charged with possession of 100 baggies of heroin and 25 baggies of cocaine. The police report said that he was arrested at the Ida B. Wells public housing development while on the third floor of one of the buildings.

On May 15, 2007, Conley pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

This was not the first time Conley had been arrested by members of Watts’s crew of officers. On January 22, 2004, Conley, then 30, had gone to the housing development to visit a friend. As he walked to the elevator, several of Watts’s men swarmed into the lobby.

Conley and several others were ordered to stand next to the wall with their hands outstretched and legs spread. The officers, including Brian Bolton and Kallat Mohammed, began searching them. The officers arrested Conley after they claimed they saw him drop a plastic bag containing 29 baggies of cocaine.

On August 31, 2004, Conley had gone to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. He chose to have the case decided by Judge William Lacy without a jury. He was convicted and sentenced to two years on probation.

In 2012, Watts and 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 the end of 2021, more than 90 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On February 1, 2022, Conley’s 2004 conviction, along with the convictions of 18 others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, were vacated, and the cases were dismissed following an investigation by the CIU. Conley was awarded a certificate of innocence for the 2004 case in April 2022.

On April 22, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, Conley’s 2007 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. Conley subsequently received a certificate of innocence, paving the way to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. Conley later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago. In August 2023, Bynum was awarded $165,000 in state compensation for his two wrongful convictions.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/28/2022
Last Updated: 12/12/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Sentence:2 years and 6 months
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No