Judges do not typically throw out convictions. It is standard practice to follow the lead of the courts and juries that have heard a case in the past. If that court and that jury believed that the defendant was guilty, then a subsequent judge is likely to uphold that ruling. There are rare cases in which there was some obvious misconduct or obstruction of justice in a case in which a judge will take a longer look at it. In those rare cases, a judge may decide to overturn a conviction. Given the uncommon nature of this action, the headline that a judge in Chicago overturned fifteen convictions in a single day is truly shocking.
The judge in question is Judge Leroy Martin and his ruling comes as what defense lawyers are praising as the first “mass exoneration of innocent defendants” says NPR. The decision comes after consideration of the events that unfolded in the case. Basically, the judge was concerned that these fifteen defendants were framed by Chicago Police Sargent Ronald Watts and those officers that work for him.
Some of the now released defendants in this case say that Watts would demand money and/or drugs from them when he first made contact with them. If they did not provide either of these things, he would arrest them on the spot. This behavior was largely confirmed when the Sargent himself got in trouble for trying to purchase drugs from an individual who turned out to be an FBI informant. Given this, the judge stated that he did not have confident in the testimony given by the police and others who worked for Watts in the trial. He simply could not allow the convictions to stand based on what he deemed to be unreliable testimony.
The defendants had all spent different amounts of time in prison based on their convictions. For the most part, all of these fifteen defendants had spent at least a few years behind bars for crimes they may not even have committed. Given the behavior of the former Police Sargent, it is difficult to tell which cases were legitimate prosecutions, and which were based on false testimony. The judge was careful to release only those he believed did not have enough true evidence pressed against them. Now, there are fifteen freed defendants who probably have quite the story to tell. It is a victory for their defense lawyers, and some say for the justice system as a whole.