Thursday morning, a judge representing the City of Chicago commuted the sentences of fifteen men sent to prison between 2003 and 2008 with the aid of manufactured evidence provided by Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts. The exoneration is the largest in the city’s history, and comes at a time when CPD is grappling with the abundance of skeletons in its closet.
The fifteen former inmates petitioned the court in September to have their sentences vacated and this week 18 of those were overturned. The reasoning for the suspended sentences was the framing of the victims for drugs crimes, a charge he served 22 months in a federal prison after being convicted in 2013. The planting of drugs on suspects has been a hot-button issue nationwide after several Baltimore police officers were caught on camera planting drugs on suspects.
“I feel like I have the opportunity to do whatever I want to do now. It’s like a new life for me. I’m 36 years old. I mean, I can do whatever I want to do right now,” one of the exonerated men, Leonard Gipson, told ABC7 Chicago. “Everyone knew, pay Watts or go to jail. That’s just the way it was going to go. If you’re not going to pay him, you’re going to jail. Everyone knew what he was doing,” Gipson said.”
The case is reminiscent of the persistent misconduct the Chicago Police Department has come under increased scrutiny for in recent years. The revelations of torture for dozens of confessions that took place under the leadership of former detective and commander Jon Burge along with the well-documented ‘code of silence’ that has permeated the force in the wake of police-involved shootings like LaQuan McDonald all speak to the need for immediate and far-reaching changes to local policing.
While the city continues to try to ram a $90 million police training academy down the throats of beleaguered taxpayers, more focus should be placed on weeding out the wrong officers and working towards an environment that finds the police a welcome part of the community rather than the occupying force they’ve come to represent for many citizens.
In this case, at least, justice has been served to a degree. Men who should never have been in jail in the first place are now free, and surely plotting well-deserved lawsuits against the city which seems to be constantly paying out for its own negligence.
“I am just extraordinarily heartened by today. I think it’s an extraordinary sign of what’s going on in this country and this city,” Joshua Tepfer, the attorney representing the group of exonerated men said to ABC7 Chicago.
With the trial for Jason Van Dyke still looming in the future, as well as several other high-profile shooting and misconduct cases against officers and city officials, the latest developments give a bit of hop that the facade of the latest Chicago machine may be cracking.