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Drugs, Extortion And Crooked Cops: A Chicago Exoneree Tells His Story

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Drugs, Extortion And Crooked Cops: A Chicago Exoneree Tells His Story
After years of police abuse and harassment in a South Side Chicago neighborhood, 15 men were cleared in the city's first-ever mass exoneration.
SHOW TRANSCRIPT

"I was homeless for years. Might could come to this friend house. If not, sleep in subway stay up all night in this park. I was homeless for a long time, man. For a long time. ... I'm 29. I lost everything. I was a sophomore going to be a junior in high school," Taurus Smith, one of the 15 men exonerated in Chicago's first-ever mass exoneration, said. 

Taurus Smith is one of the Watts 15 — a group of 15 men who had their drug convictions overturned in Chicago's first-ever mass exoneration. But Smith's exoneration comes after years of being unemployed and homeless because of a wrongful conviction.

"I had to grow up quick. Seventeen years old, I'm laying in Ellis Park on the playground, on the sliding board. That's where I had to sleep because my mother had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to go because of what they did to me," Smith said.

In 2013, former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts was convicted and imprisoned for extorting money from a drug dealer who turned out to be an FBI informant. But local reports and citizens who dealt with Watts say he was "shaking down drug dealers and framing people for more than a decade." Smith knows that story firsthand.

"He was a gang member slash drug dealer with a badge. The worst thing that ever could happen to me was coming across him," Smith said. 

"What they independently will come to us and say, 'Have you seen 'Training Day'? It was just like that,'" Exoneration Project attorney Joshua Tepfer said. 

Joshua Tepfer is a lawyer with the Exoneration Project. He represented Smith and others in the exoneration case.

Watts' team planted drugs on Smith and he was ultimately convicted on narcotics charges. Before accepting a plea deal, Smith filed a complaint with Chicago's Office of Professional Standards.

"His mom tried to file a complaint took Taurus to file a complaint and the next day immediately retaliating — Watts found out and came and threatened Taurus again," Tepfer said. 

"He had two guns he had his service weapon and another gun like, 'This grown man sh*t you doing.' … I went and did the right thing, the right way, nobody believed me," Smith said. 

Watts and his team of officers would go on to harass and manufacture charges against Smith for years after their initial encounter. 

"He was a kid and Watts just rounded him up and planted evidence on him, and he was spit out through the system with a conviction that put him in jail," Tepfer said. 

Smith and his mother were kicked out of their home. Because Smith was now a convicted felon, his mother was no longer eligible for their Chicago Housing Authority voucher. Smith has been homeless ever since. Watts ultimately served 22 months in prison but was in and out of jail well before Smith had his case examined by a judge.

"Twenty-something months in jail? Like you messed my livelihood up for the rest of my life. … I couldn't do half the things I wanted to do. Couldn't go to college, couldn't get a job because they always went back to you a convicted felon," Smith said. 

Tepfer added: "There was wiretaps, there was federal investigations, there was whistleblowing police officers. It was all there. How could they let it happen? And even if they let it happen, how could they not go back and fix it later?"

It's been a long process, but the state is finally taking steps to fix these men's lives. The city is expected to grant all 15 exonerees a "certificate of innocence," which will erase the felony convictions from their permanent records, give them the opportunity to sue the city, and more importantly help them move on with their lives. 

"I don't care if it's McDonald’s, Popeyes, Forman Mills, I just want to work. I just want to be like a normal person because I was robbed of that. I was robbed of that," Smith said. 

While Watts has been fired from the department, nearly a dozen officers who worked under Watts are still employed by the CPD.

Tepfer says there are at least 500 more convictions involving Watts and his team that need to be vetted for legitimacy.