JaJuan Nile was a joker, a picky eater and his mother's only son. He dreamed of starting a landscaping business. He never got the chance. A run-in with a now-disgraced Chicago police officer put the 20-year-old behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Nile was charged with possession of cocaine in 2007 and sentenced to three years in prison. With a felony on his record, he was repeatedly denied jobs and apartments. Two years ago, after he received his certificate of innocence and landed a job, the father of three young kids was fatally shot. Nile was among nearly 200 people who have been cleared of charges tied to former Sgt. Ronald Watts and his Chicago police. It's the largest series of exonerations in the city’s history, said Joshua Tepfer of the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, which has represented most of the victims, reports USA Today.
For almost a decade, Watts and his team preyed on innocent people at the Ida B. Wells Homes public housing project, where they extorted money and planted drugs and guns, knowing their victims – largely Black and low-income residents – wouldn't be believed, said Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. "He was asking for people to pay a tax, if you will," said Foxx, whose office has tried to rectify the harm Watts and his team caused. "He really carried himself as the top dog in that neighborhood, and people who didn't comply had cases put on them." Watts, an 18-year veteran of the department, had vendettas against some people, Foxx said. Other times he targeted people just because "he could," she said. Local and federal law enforcement were investigating allegations of the team's corruption as early as 2004, the same year Watts won "Officer of the Month." It wasn't until 2012 that Watts and a member of his crew, Kallatt Mohammed, were arrested on federal charges of stealing $5,200 in government funds from an undercover informant. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 22 and 18 months, respectively. Prosecutors have moved to dismiss at least 226 convictions and juvenile adjudications connected to Watts and his team. The wrongful prosecutions cost 183 people sentences of 459 years in prison plus 57 probation and 10 boot camp sentences.