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Dozens who say they were framed by corrupt Chicago drug squad demand exoneration

Some people have been quickly cleared, while others are still waiting.

Seventeen years later, Rasaan Shannon still feels the bolt of fear that hit him when his court-appointed lawyer told him he faced up to three decades in prison for a drug charge he says was orchestrated by a corrupt Chicago police officer.

He also remembers the relief he felt after being offered a plea deal that would land him in a boot camp for young offenders for four months. He took it, pleading guilty even though he insisted the heroin had been planted on him by a group of officers, led by Sgt. Ronald Watts, who worked in the Ida B. Wells Homes public housing complex on Chicago’s South Side in the early 2000s. Shannon couldn’t prove it, and he didn’t think anyone would believe him.

“There was nothing I could possibly do,” Shannon, 34, said last week, weeping as he recalled his arrest and conviction, which he said derailed his senior year of high school and led him into gang life. “It was all in the hands of this officer.”

Rasaan Shannon is one of dozens who say they were framed by officers in one of Chicago's biggest police corruption scandals.Courtesy Rasaan Shannon

That officer did turn out to be corrupt. In 2012, Watts and another officer were arrested and later pleaded guilty to federal theft of public funds charges, accused of extorting residents and drug dealers in the housing project.

Now Shannon is still fighting to be heard, along with dozens of others who say they were framed by Watts and his team in one of Chicago’s biggest police corruption scandals.

Since Watts and a former partner, Kallatt Mohammed, went to prison in 2013, prosecutors at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have agreed to the exonerations of 87 people wrongfully arrested by the drug squad. But that number does not come close to capturing the full extent of the corruption, according to lawyers representing additional people arrested by the squad.

There are another 88 people with similar claims, including some, like Shannon, who were arrested alongside people who have already been exonerated. Others have provided statements that helped exonerate still others. Some say they were framed more than once; some have had one conviction dismissed but not another. Many of the 88 submitted their claims to the Cook County prosecutor for review years ago. But they have gotten no response, their lawyers say.

Rather than wait any longer, the 88 and their lawyers are going straight to a judge. On Tuesday, they filed a petition seeking to dismiss their convictions.

“It’s B.S. and totally unfair and shows what type of system we have,” Shannon said. “And it’s why we’re doing what we can to fight against the system.”

The petition, a draft of which was provided to NBC News by lawyers Joshua Tepfer and Joel Flaxman ahead of the filing, outlines the history and scope of the corruption, starting with complaints from people Watts and his squad arrested. It describes the FBI sting that ultimately brought him down and the wave of exonerations that led one appellate court to accuse the city of failing to stop the corrupt officers.

Mohammed admitted in 2012 that he and Watts extorted protection payoffs from drug dealers, and a year later Watts pleaded guilty to taking thousands of dollars from a drug courier working as a confidential federal informant. That led to a wave of claims from people who said Watts and his team had planted drugs on them.

The cases involving the 88 alleged victims “are indistinguishable” from the drug arrests already deemed wrongful, according to the lawyers representing them. The arrests occurred from 2002 to 2009. All of the people arrested were Black, and all the arrests were made by Watts, who is also Black, or officers working with him.

Several of those officers are still working for the Chicago Police Department, including some who have been put on a Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office list of officers deemed too untrustworthy to be called to testify in a criminal case. Aside from Watts and Mohammed, none have been disciplined for their roles in the arrests that have been deemed wrongful, the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability told WBEZ public radio last month.

Former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts after being sentenced to 22 months in prison in 2013.Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune via Getty Images file

In 2017, Tepfer and Flaxman worked out an arrangement with the state’s attorney’s office in which the alleged victims provided prosecutors with documents, including sworn affidavits on their claims of being framed. The state’s attorney’s office reviewed those documents internally and decided whether the convictions should be thrown out. For the most part, the office agreed.

That system worked well for a while, but the progress has stopped, the lawyers said. The last set of exonerations was announced in February. The lawyers said the state’s attorney’s office has told a judge that the office is continuing to review the claims.

“It’s very unsatisfying to us and our clients, some of whom have been waiting for years for the state’s attorney’s office to finish its review,” Flaxman said.

Tepfer said the delay on cases that are so similar to those already dismissed “shows that the review is really flawed. What is the standard they’re using? We don’t know.”

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said in a statement that it is continuing to review claims tied to Watts but would not comment on specific cases.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for comment last week. But the agency has said in the past that it has "absolutely zero tolerance for misconduct and/or illegal activity" within the department.

For Shannon, the wait makes him feel that his claim is not being taken as seriously as the others. He finds it discouraging and disappointing.

“I think it’s a statement of what the criminal justice system is,” he said. “I just think it’s hypocrisy. It just sucks.”

Shannon was 17, on summer break from John Marshall Harlan Community Academy High School, when he was arrested by Watts and his fellow officers on July 3, 2004. In a police report, the officers said they saw Shannon and a man named Derrick Lewis drop bags of drugs while running from the officers inside the Wells complex. Both Shannon and Lewis were charged with drug possession.

In separate sworn affidavits submitted in Cook County Circuit Court in 2018, Shannon and Lewis recalled being taken with others to a police stationhouse, where Watts placed bags of drugs in front of them and said the drugs belonged to them. Some of the others who were arrested tried to trade information about drug activity for their release, but Shannon and Lewis said they didn’t know anything worth sharing. Lewis ended up pleading guilty, as well, and was sentenced to nearly three years in prison.

Shannon said he’d never been in serious trouble before. He loved reading, science and nature and dreamed of one day running a nonprofit group that helped people.

He spent several weeks in the Cook County Jail, where he said he was forced to align with gang members affiliated with his neighborhood to stay safe.

Cook County Jail in Chicago.Jim Vondruska / Reuters

After his four months in a boot camp, he said, he came out a different person: toughened and cynical about leading a law-abiding life. He went to a military recruiting station but was turned away because of his conviction, he said. He started dealing drugs.

“The experience left me with this mentality that the streets are my friend,” Shannon said. “It made me question the point of trying to do right. Because they could just plant drugs on me again.”

In 2009, Shannon was caught stealing a gun from an officer who’d been seriously injured in a car crash on Chicago’s South Side. He pleaded guilty to robbery and disarming a police officer and served more than four years in prison.

Shannon now calls that a “coward move” that he is ashamed of. But he said his actions reflected his attitude toward police, which had soured with his experience as a 17-year-old.

After getting out of prison in 2013, Shannon said he realized that a criminal lifestyle was not going to help him or his family, including his young daughter. He stopped dealing drugs and tried to stay out of trouble, he said.

In 2018, after hearing about the first wave of Watts-related exonerations, Shannon sought out the Exoneration Project, the law firm where Tepfer works. The firm took up his case.

Lewis, the man arrested with Shannon, reached out to the Exoneration Project, too. His arrest with Shannon was one of two instances in which he said he was framed by Watts and other officers and was sentenced to prison. Both convictions were dismissed in 2019 through the process in which claims were submitted to the state’s attorney’s office.

“What they did to us was wrong, and they can’t make it right other than to make sure that it can’t be done to someone else,” Lewis, 42, said. “They can’t give us that time back.”

It bothers him that Shannon hasn’t gotten exonerated.

“How could they deny him if they accused him of the same thing they accused me of and we said the same thing from day one, that we didn’t do anything?” Lewis said. “Whatever they touched should be undone. So what’s the problem with Rasaan?”

Shannon said he is trying to leave that part of his life behind him. He lives in a Chicago suburb and works stocking shelves at a liquor store while attending culinary school. He wants to create programs to support children in neglected Chicago neighborhoods like the one where he grew up. But he remains traumatized.

“I had dreams to do big things in the world,” he said. “I have to do something to make a difference.”