Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Illinois prosecutors tossed the convictions Thursday of 15 men who say they were framed by a corrupt group Chicago police officers.
The men said they were framed for drug convictions between 2003 and 2008 by a police crew led by former Sgt. Ronald Watts, who was sentenced in 2013 to nearly two years in federal prison for stealing money from a suspected dealer who turned out to be an FBI informant involved in an undercover sting.
"As far as we're aware, there has not been anything like this when it comes to vacating convictions and dismissing the cases," Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the University of Michigan's National Registry of Exonerations project, told WTTW-TV.
Seven other officers suspected of being involved have been removed from street duty pending an internal investigation, The Chicago Tribune reported.
"They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country," Chicago PD spokesman Frank Giancamilli said. "We just can't arbitrarily take the job away from people."
Watts' officers were accused of harassing men living in a Chicago housing project and were told to pay money or face a felony drug charge.
"Everyone knew ... if you're not going to pay Watts, you're going to jail," said 36-year-old Leonard Gipson, one of the men exonerated Thursday. "That's just the way it was going to go."
"They would plant drugs on you, beat you, they came to court and testified in my case as credible police officers and all the time it was nothing but lies," Phillip Thomas, 58, said.