18 Drug Convictions Linked to Corrupt Chicago Cop Are Tossed
By Elyssa Cherney
Feelings of vindication mixed with fear for Vondell Wilbourn, one of 18 men whose drug convictions were tossed in a historic hearing Monday because the charges were linked to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts.
Wilbourn, 42, who said he was framed and arrested twice by Watts in 2004 and 2005, worried the attention would put another target on his back.
"At the time this was happening, we were telling everyone, but no one listened," Wilbourn said. "Even though it's in the past, there will never be closure."
The hearing marked the second time that a group of men targeted by Watts and his tactical team at an affordable housing complex on the South Side had their convictions overturned in a mass hearing. So far, 42 people have had convictions dismissed as part of a review by the Cook County state's attorney's office and lawyers for the victims. The men have accused Watts of making up the cases when they refused to pay him protection money, sell drugs for him or let him steal weapons.
Yet those numbers may represent just a fraction of the people victimized by Watts, according to attorney Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago.
Tepfer, who represented 12 of the men on Monday, said he has determined from public records requests that more than 1,000 people were arrested by Watts or his team members from 2004 to 2012. Based on the same data, Tepfer estimates as many as 500 of those cases resulted in convictions.
"These were officers of a tactical team that were so poorly supervised, they were just making enormous amounts of arrests," Tepfer said. "We are committed to vetting every single one of those convictions."
While the reversals on Monday represent an emotional milestone for the victims, there is still more work to be done, Tepfer said. The men will also seek certificates of innocence from the state, which would allow them to receive compensation for a wrongful conviction. They will also need the arrests to be expunged from their criminal record so the information does not appear to prospective employers.
There's also more work left for the state's attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit. Lawyers are reviewing 30 to 40 additional cases tied to Watts, according to a spokeswoman. The unit investigates only the cases that are referred to its attorneys and does not actively seek them out.
Following the hearing Monday, Foxx stood in front of a gaggle of news cameras to offer an apology to the 18 men, whom she shook hands with in court. She vowed to help correct errors in the justice system that have caused some Chicagoans to lose faith in authorities.
"We could not stand behind the integrity of these cases because of the behavior of Mr. Watts," Foxx said.
Watts had been able to operate for years despite mounting allegations and a lengthy investigation by the police internal affairs division, as well as investigations by the state's attorney's office and the FBI, according to court records.
When Watts was finally caught, in 2012, it was on relatively minor federal charges of shaking down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI agent . Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed both pleaded guilty, and Watts received only 22 months in prison. He was released in 2015 and has since moved to Las Vegas, records show.
Since the Watts allegations were realized, Foxx's administration has banned 10 officers who worked closely with Watts from testifying for prosecutors in future criminal cases because of concerns with their credibility.
The fallout is still unfolding at the Police Department as well. For the last year, 15 officers associated with Watts' crew have been placed on desk duty pending an internal Police Department investigation. Some of those officers were under investigation by the FBI but were never charged.
A police spokesman on Monday said the internal investigation was still pending. A spokesman from the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
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