Ben Baker, 43, of Chicago was convicted of drug possession in 2005 and sentenced to 14 years in prison, but last year, the Exoneration Project discovered evidence that the investigators framed Baker. He was eventually released from the Robinson Correctional Center this week and sent home. Baker’s legal team knew for more than a day that he was no longer convicted of what a corrupt officer framed him for, but Baker had no idea. He said, “I was coming from the gym, from a fitness class they provide there. I was standing, waiting. The officer told me to pack my stuff. I was going home. I told him, ‘Stop playing.’ ”
“This is what we do this work for. This conviction should have never happened, but we are delighted that once the case got on their radar, the state’s attorney’s office acted quickly and decisively,” said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project.
Sergeant Ronald Watts and a number of officers on his squad testified that Baker was selling drugs out of one of the city’s public housing buildings, the Ida B. Wells building. Baker has always maintained his innocence and said that the authorities were framing him.
At trial, he testified that Sgt. Watts had previously tried to frame him for drug-related cases when he refused to give Watts $1,000 for “protection”. Baker refused to pay the money and got out of those false charges later. He subsequently complained to another officer Alvin Jones, but he didn’t know that Jones was part of the scheme. Jones responded it was all “part of the game…you win some, you lose some. Next time we get you, it will stick.”
Watts and the other officers testified that Baker was lying and the jury convicted him.
Officer Douglas Nichols, who worked under Watts’ command, testified that he saw Baker with drug bags packaged for distribution and tried to capture him, but he fled. Officer Robert Gonzalez, also a member of Watts’ team, testified that he arrested Baker in the lobby after Baker got away from Nichols and that he found heroin, crack cocaine, and $800 in his pocket.
Baker told the court that Watts and his officers were the ones with a criminal empire in the housing complex. They often stole narcotics proceeds and shook down dealers for “protection money”, and even pinned cases on innocent residents if they refused to play ball with them.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge fully believed the officers stating that he thought Baker’s accusations were unfounded. He sentenced Baker to 18 years, but that sentence was later reduced to 14 years. The accusations “[hold] no water at all,” Judge Toomin said.
It turns out that the criminals were the ones wearing the badges in this case.
“Tepfer provided FBI reports [and Chicago police IA files] showing that at the time of Baker’s trial, Watts was already the target of an ongoing joint investigation by the FBI and Chicago police internal affairs investigators into allegations of corruption nearly identical to those made by Baker,” reports the Chicago Tribune.
The motion for new trial also cited a whistleblower lawsuit filed by two Chicago officers who said they faced repeated retaliation for going to supervisors and reporting the corruption of Watts and others in the Wells development. When no one at the precinct would listen, they turned to the FBI, who made them undercover informants in order to catch Watts and others red-handed.
One FBI report stated that Watts was receiving “weekly payments from drug dealers” in the amount of “$5,000”. Sgt. Watts and another officer under his command were later convicted of federal corruption charges after being caught in an FBI sting operation.
Sally Daly, spokesperson for State Attorney Anita Alvarez, said that a thorough investigation by the city’s Conviction Integrity Unit into Baker’s case prompted the state to drop the charges.
“Based upon the fact that this now-convicted officer provided key testimony against Mr. Baker, this conviction can no longer stand,” Daly said.
Baker’s sister, Gale Anderson, told the Tribune, “We always knew he was innocent, but to know that what they did to him is finally in the light after all this time in the dark, I’m just so grateful.”
“This is the greatest day ever. Years (have) just been taken away. Now he’s been put back with our family. It means everything to us.”
Anderson said that she and her brother had talked by phone the day before, neither knew of his imminent release, and she agreed to buy him a Powerball ticket, “He didn’t win the [$1.5 billion prize], but he did better.”
The decision to drop all charges came just a month after Baker filed an appeal asking for a new trial. His appeal made the front page of the Chicago Tribune. His appeal noted that the Chicago police Internal Affairs Division had known about accusations against Sgt. Watts as far back as the 1990s, but did nothing about it.
Baker served 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit.