Wrongful convictions could pressure Chicago’s finances

Don Babwin
Associated Press

Chicago – For years, the Chicago Police Department has been trying to move past a shameful chapter characterized by coercion and brutality, shelling out multimillion-dollar settlements to men who were tortured into confessing to serious crimes they didn’t commit.

But as the number of cases linked to disgraced former police commander Jon Burge dwindles, a flurry of drug and murder convictions linked to two other former officers have been overturned. And the vindicated inmates are walking out of prison ready to sue.

Chicago has already paid out well over $670 million in police misconduct cases in the past 15 years, but that expenditure could skyrocket due to current and future lawsuits from people who say they were framed by former Sgt. Ronald Watts or Detective Reynaldo Guevara.

“We’ve had all kinds of police corruption, we’ve had police torture cases, but we’ve never had so many cases where there is clear evidence that police actually set people up for crimes they didn’t commit,” said Marshall Hatch, a prominent minister and activist on the city’s West Side.

“Watts and Guevara handled tons more cases than Burge,” said David Erickson, a former state appellate judge, who teaches at Chicago Kent College of Law.

In just two years, at least 11 men who alleged Guevara framed them have had their murder convictions thrown out, bringing to 18 the number of men whose convictions were tossed amid allegations of brutality and coercion. At least a dozen more post-conviction petitions are pending.

At least 12 of the 18 have sued and more lawsuits are sure to follow.

The now-retired Guevara has not been charged with any crimes. He has helped inmates win freedom by repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination or insisting he couldn’t remember facts, thus forcing prosecutors to dismiss charges in several cases.

Jacques Rivera, whose lawsuit will be heard in court on Monday, alleges he was convicted of murder after Guevara and other officers “conspired to … manipulate the identification of the sole eyewitness to the attack,” a 12-year-old boy.

Since last fall, the drug convictions of nearly three dozen men – all arrested by Watts and his men – have been thrown out. More could follow.