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Zarice Johnson

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
The first time Zarice Johnson was framed by Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts was on July 24, 2006. Johnson was 17 and leaving his girlfriend’s apartment at the Ida B. Wells public housing development when Watts and two other officers, Robert Gonzalez and Alvin Jones, stopped him and put him in handcuffs. They took him to the lobby.

At that time, 28-year-old Maurice Harris was walking through the lobby after visiting a friend. He was stopped as well.

Sgt. Watts asked them for information on drug dealing or the location of drugs. When both said they did not know anything, Watts left the lobby and went upstairs. When he returned, he was holding a sock containing baggies of heroin and cocaine. Harris and Johnson were arrested.

The officers reported that they saw Johnson purchase drugs from Harris.

Harris was charged with possession and distribution of heroin. On October 10, 2006, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Johnson was charged with possession of heroin and cocaine. On October 10, 2006, he pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two years in prison. In April 2007, after he was released, he was sentenced to another 30 days in jail for violating the terms of his parole.

On February 19, 2008, Johnson, who was then 18, was hanging out with a cousin, Willie, who was confined to a wheelchair. Willie’s mother asked Johnson to take out some trash and Willie rolled his wheelchair to open the door. When Johnson got into the hallway, Watts and other officers approached and asked if he had any drugs. When Johnson said he had nothing illegal, Watts loudly began accusing them of selling drugs.

Johnson’s aunt, Gwendolyn Johnson, overheard the commotion and came to the door. Watts claimed Zarice had hidden drugs in Gwendolyn’s apartment. She denied it and allowed Watts and the officers to search her residence. One of the officers picked up Gwendolyn’s infant grandchild and claimed he found drugs in the baby’s clothing. Another officer claimed, however, that the drugs were found under the kitchen sink.

Watts said it didn’t matter because Zarice was going to jail for the drugs. Another officer said they would let him go if he could give them the location of any guns. Johnson said he knew nothing about any guns, so he was arrested and charged with possession of 100 baggies of heroin.

On June 17, 2008, Johnson pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released from prison on February 3, 2009.

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.

Beginning in December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed motions for new trial 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 began investigating the cases and agreed that convictions should be vacated and dismissed.

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

On February 11, 2019, both of Johnson’s convictions were vacated and dismissed, bringing the total to more than 60 convictions erased in the Watts corruption scandal. He was subseqently granted a certificate of innoence, clearing the way to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. In May 2019, Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago. Also in May 2019, Johnson was awarded $80,000 in state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/26/2019
Last Updated: 12/6/2021
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2008
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No