For the fifth year in a row, Chicago is the wrongful conviction capital of the United States, accounting for more than half of all exonerations recorded nationwide in 2022, according to the annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations.
Cook County recorded 124 overturned convictions in 2022, all but two of those were tied to misconduct by two former Chicago police officers, according to the report.
The report’s findings offer a glimpse at the enormous challenge facing Mayor Brandon Johnson as he takes office. Johnson has pledged to reform the Chicago Police Department, which will remain under the control of a federal judge and a consent decree until at least 2027, while at the same time reducing crime and violence.
Johnson is now in charge of a police department that has had three superintendents since the beginning of March and is in full compliance with just 3% of the consent decree, which was prompted by a 2017 federal investigation that found officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans.
All but one of the people exonerated in Cook County 2022 were Black or Latino, and four people were exonerated twice after being convicted multiple times of crimes they did not commit, according to the report.
Beyond the toll of those wrongful convictions on people’s lives and their families, exonerations and police misconduct are incredibly costly for Chicago taxpayers.
In September, the Chicago City Council agreed to pay $9 million to a man who was exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Nineteen people convicted by the Cook County courts who were exonerated in 2022 spent decades behind bars, according to the report from the National Registry of Exonerations. All were victims of official misconduct, according to the report.
In 2022, Chicago taxpayers spent at least $98 million to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct, according to city records. The city’s 2023 budget earmarks $82 million to cover the cost of resolving lawsuits brought against the Chicago Police Department.
Ninety-seven exonerations in 2022 were tied to a crew of corrupt cops that included disgraced former Sgt. Ronald Watts, according to the report. Since 2017, 212 convictions tied to Watts have been overturned, according to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
An additional 14 people who were convicted by officers tied to Watts were exonerated in 2021. Watts and other members of his crew routinely extorted residents and guests at the Ida B. Wells housing project for more than a decade in the early 2000s, according to the National Registry of Exonerations 2021 report.
Interim Chicago Police Supt. Fred Waller supported the promotion of Alvin Jones to sergeant in 2012. In 2022, Jones resigned after a report from the Civilian Office of Police Accountability detailed allegations that he engaged in extortion with Watts, who pleaded guilty to corruption in 2013 and served 22 months in prison.
An additional 25 exonerations in 2022 were tied to former Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who has been accused of routinely framing suspects. In 2017, a judge ruled Guevara routinely lied under oath.
In 2021, seven people who were convicted after being arrested by Guevara were exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations 2021 report.
In September 2021, the Chicago City Council agreed to pay $20.5 million to two men who each spent 23 years in prison after being convicted of murder in 1993 based on evidence obtained by Guevara. Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were exonerated in 2016, records show.
Waller did not apply to be Chicago’s permanent top cop, but whoever Johnson picks to take over the beleaguered department will find demands for reform at the top of his or her to-do list.
The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, which is charged with selecting three finalists from the 53 people who applied for the job, will hold a final community forum on May 22 at the Beverly Arts Center.
In all, the report documented 233 exonerations across the United States in 2022, including two other exonerations in Illinois: one in Will County and another in Lake County. Michigan, which recorded 16 exonerations, and Texas, where 11 convictions were overturned, were the only other states to record more than 10 exonerations in 2022, according to the report.