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Felony drug convictions tied to a corrupt former police sergeant have been thrown out

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Chicago today, a judge threw out five felony drug convictions tied to a corrupt former police sergeant. Courts have already vacated more than 100 other convictions tied to that same sergeant, but civil rights attorneys were hoping for many more exonerations today and want prosecutors to move faster. Chip Mitchell of member station WBEZ reports.

CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: Since the late 1990s, a Chicago police unit led by Sergeant Ronald Watts has been the subject of allegations it routinely fabricated drug charges against people at a south side housing complex who refused to pay extortion fees. Those allegedly framed included Clarissa Glenn and her husband in 2005. He went to prison. She got probation and had to raise their three boys without him.

CLARISSA GLENN: You're denied any kind of assistance, housing, medical, employment. I was fighting for over nine years.

MITCHELL: Fighting to get those convictions thrown out, and it didn't start to gain traction until Watson, one of the cops he supervised, were arrested in 2012 and sent to prison. In 2016, the convictions against Glenn and her husband were vacated. That led to many more, and by this past February, judges had thrown out a total of 110 convictions tied to the sergeant. In July, civil rights attorneys combined 100 more cases into a single petition hoping for one of the nation's largest mass exonerations. Today in court, though, the prosecutor heading the review of those cases said her unit needed more time and backed vacating just five convictions for now. That means 95 drug felonies tied to the corrupt sergeant will remain on the books for now, and 83 people will keep waiting for their names to be cleared. Attorney Joshua Tapfer represents most of them.

JOSHUA TAPFER: I don't know what I'm going to tell them, and I don't know what I can say about why it has taken this long. The evidence is overwhelming that there was just routine corruption going on by this absolutely rogue Chicago police unit.

MITCHELL: In a statement, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said the five exonerations constitute, quote, "a step toward righting the wrongs of the past and giving these individuals their names back." But she made no promises how long others with drug felonies linked to the sergeant will have to wait. Clarissa Glenn says it breaks her heart.

GLENN: For those other 83 people, because I was in their shoes, the court system actually basically say that you're still not innocent, we're still believing these corrupt officers, is a slap in the face, and it's hurtful.

MITCHELL: The next hearing for those waiting for exoneration is scheduled for January. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "ORGANISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Based at WBEZ’s studio on Chicago’s West Side, Chip focuses on policing, gun violence and underground business. His investigative and narrative work has earned dozens of local and national honors. In 2017, 2015 and 2013, the Chicago Headline Club (the nation’s largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter) gave him its annual award for “best reporter” in broadcast radio.He has won two first-place National Headliner Awards, one for 2014 reporting that led to a felony indictment of Chicago’s most celebrated police commander, another for a short 2013 documentary about a Chicago heroin supply chain through Mexico and Texas. Other honors have come from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the Radio Television Digital News Association (Edward R. Murrow awards), the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation/Better Government Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Illinois Associated Press and Public Narrative (Studs Terkel award).He has also reported as part of award-winning WBEZ collaborations with the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.Before Chip joined WBEZ in 2006, his base for three years was Bogotá, Colombia. He reported from conflict zones around that war-torn country and from numerous other Latin American nations. Topics ranged from national elections to guinea-pig meat exports to bus rapid transit. The stories reached U.S. audiences through PRI’s The World, NPR’s Morning Edition, the BBC, the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and the Committee to Protect Journalists.From 1995 to 2003, Chip focused on immigration and U.S. roles in Latin America as editor of Connection to the Americas, winner of the 2003 Utne Independent Press Award for “general excellence” among newsletters nationwide. In 1995, the Milwaukee Press Club named one of Chip’s stories for the Madison newspaper Isthmus the year’s best investigative report in Wisconsin. The story examined a fatal shooting by narcotics officers in a rural mobile-home park. In 1992, he co-founded two daily news shows broadcast ever since on Madison’s community radio station, WORT.Chip was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a B.A. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood with his partner and their daughter.