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Shaun James

Other Cook County Drug Exonerations
On April 3, 2004, 23-year-old Shaun "Smoke" James and 17-year-old Taurus Smith were hanging out at the Ida B. Wells public housing development, watching a dice game, when several police cars suddenly arrived simultaneously.

As Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and members of his team burst from the vehicles, virtually everyone ran, except for James and Smith. The officers ran into the building in pursuit of those who fled.

About 10 minutes later, Watts and other officers came outside and detained Smith and James. They were questioned about the identities of those who fled and the names of individuals who were selling drugs.

Smith and James, who were not carrying or selling drugs, said they didn’t know. Watts then suggested that James pay him to avoid being arrested. When James and Smith would not cooperate, they were taken into the building lobby. There, Watts left briefly and returned with drugs in his hands.

“I’m tired of playing with their ass,” he declared. “Put that shit on Smoke and him,” he added, pointing at James.

Officer Alvin Jones then arrested them and took them to the police station. When Watts arrived, he confiscated the cash that Smith and James were carrying and put it in his pocket.

When Watts threatened to arrest Crystal Looney, the mother of James’s child, James finally said, “Put it on me.”

James was unable to make bond and on May 14, 2004, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court, He was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Smith was able to post bond. Accompanied by his mother, he went to the Chicago Police Office of Professional Standards, which investigated citizen complaints of police misconduct. They filed a complaint against Watts and the officers.

The following day, Watts, Jones, and another officer confronted Smith, who was alone. Watts was holding a gun in his hand and his service revolver was in its holster. Watts made it clear he knew Smith had filed a complaint. “This is grown man shit,” Watts declared. He threatened to plant the gun on Smith unless he dropped the complaint.

On June 23, 2004, Smith pled guilty and was sentenced to two years’ probation. He and his mother then moved out of the area.

James’s probation was revoked later that year and he was sentenced to a year in prison.

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 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.

In December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Lionel White Sr., another defendant who claimed he had been 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,” the motion said.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that White’s conviction should be vacated and dismissed the charge.

In November 2017, following a re-investigation of numerous other cases involving Watts, the Cook County State's Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit dismissed 17 convictions involving 15 more defendants, including James, Smith, and Lionel White Jr., the son of Lionel White Sr.

By 2018, more than 50 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

In 2018, James and Smith filed federal civil rights lawsuits seeking compensation from the city of Chicago. James also was granted a certificate of innocence, which resulted in an award of $97,075 in compensation from the state of Illinois. Smith was denied a certificate of innocence, but the denial was being appealed in November 2018.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/7/2018
Last Updated: 3/29/2019
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:1 year
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No