In the hallway of a Chicago public housing complex in the summer of 2008, a young man came face to face with a police sergeant known for planting drugs on people.
Sgt. Ronald Watts asked for money, and the man, George Almond, 28 at the time, said he didn’t have much, according to court documents and a synopsis of the case compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations. Then, Watts, who is Black, arrested Almond, also Black, for drug possession — and produced several small bags of heroin as evidence of a crime that hadn’t happened. Faced with the near-impossible task of proving the drugs had been planted, Almond pleaded guilty and spent 16 months in prison, NBC News reports.
The wrongful conviction, and the corruption that caused it, likely would have remained hidden if not for a federal investigation of Watts that resulted years later in the sergeant's pleading guilty in an unrelated case to stealing from an informant. The investigation led to exonerations of more than 70 of Watts’ victims, including Almond — a list that continues to grow.
Those tainted cases, which damaged many lives and the public trust, are just a small fraction of more than 1,000 tallied in a new nationwide study by the registry that measures the role of government misconduct in wrongful convictions — and how that misconduct falls heaviest on Black exonerees.
U.S. & World
The study, published Tuesday, examined 2,400 cases from 1989 through February 2019 in which people were absolved of criminal convictions, and it found that 54 percent involved corruption or negligence by police, prosecutors, lab workers or other government employees.