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Ervin Wright

Summary of the Watts Scandal
On January 31, 2004, 43-year-old Ervin Wright was sitting with friends drinking beer outside the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois when police in plainclothes approached. There was a woman nearby who was calling out to people and directing them to where they could buy drugs.

Wright later said, “I told the woman…words to the effect of: ‘Little girl, don’t you know that’s the police?’”

Wright said one of the officers, whom he recognized as being part of a crew of officers working under Sgt. Ronald Watts, called him over. “He told me that I should not have told the woman that they were the police,” Wright recalled.

The police took him inside the building and searched him. Although they found nothing illegal, he was arrested. He was accused of running from a vacant apartment as the police approached and dropping a bag containing packets of heroin.

“I was never in a vacant apartment, I did not run from the officers, and I never had drugs on my person that day,” Wright said.

On March 17, 2004, Wright pled guilty to possession of heroin in Cook County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ultimately spent 117 days in custody.

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, a href="/special/exoneration/pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=4864">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 14, 2023, following an investigation by the CIU, Wright’s conviction was vacated, and the charge was dismissed. By then, more than 200 convictions attributed to misconduct by Watts and his crew had been dismissed.

Wright was subsequently granted a certificate of innocence which paved the way to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. He also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/13/2023
Last Updated: 9/13/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:1 year and 6 months
Age at the date of reported crime:43
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No