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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.