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Maurice Harris

Summary of Watts scandal
On July 24, 2006, 28-year-old Maurice Harris was walking through the lobby of a building in the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois after visiting a friend. He was stopped by Chicago police officers working under the command of Sgt. Ronald Watts. Not long after, the officers also stopped 17-year-old Zarice Johnson.

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 also pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.

In 2012, Watts and a 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 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 began investigating the cases and agreed that the convictions should be vacated and dismissed. By the end of 2020, more than 80 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed. In February 2019, Johnson’s conviction for the 2006 arrest as well as another conviction for a similar false arrest in 2008 were both vacated and dismissed.

On November 4, 2021, Harris’s conviction, along with convictions of four others framed by Watts and his fellow officers, was vacated and dismissed following an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit.

In January 2022, Harris was granted a certificate of innocence. In July 2022, the Illinois Court of Claims awarded Harris $109,782 in state compensation. In November, Harris, acting as his own lawyer, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/6/2021
Last Updated: 12/11/2022
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Sentence:5 years
Age at the date of reported crime:28
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No