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Keith Owens

Summary of the Watts scandal
On July 11, 2007, 17-year-old Keith Owens had just returned home from summer school and was with friends outside of the building at 527 East Browning Avenue in the Ida B. Wells public housing project when Chicago police swarmed the area.

“People started running all over the place,” Owens later recalled. “I didn’t run because I didn’t have any drugs on me and had not done anything illegal.”

Owens started to walk away when two officers took him into the lobby of the building. He saw Sgt. Ronald Watts in the rear of the lobby.

“The officers searched me but didn’t find anything,” Owens said. “The officers then asked me to give them information about who was selling drugs. I told them I didn’t know who was selling drugs.”

At that point, Gregory Owens, who was Keith’s brother, came up. Gregory tried to convince the officers to release Keith. “The officers told Gregory that if he could get them a gun, they would let me go,” Keith said. When Gregory said he didn’t know where to get a gun, the officers handcuffed Keith and took him to the station. When Keith pleaded with them not to arrest him, one officer said, “You can thank your [obscenity] brother for this.”

Keith was charged with possession of 27 baggies of heroin. On August 21, 2007, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two years of probation.

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 (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, Owens’s conviction, along with more than 40 other convictions resulting from Watts and his fellow officers, were vacated and dismissed. The dismissals brought the total number of convictions vacated in the corruption scandal to more than 200.

In June 2022, Owens was granted a certificate of innocence, subsequently was awarded $35,000 in compensation from the state of Illinois. He filed a federal lawsuit in September 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/16/2022
Last Updated: 5/19/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No