The hearing in Cook County criminal court on Monday lasted only 15 minutes, but the order from the presiding judge to dismiss 18 more cases linked to former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts was the latest effort to repair a decade of terror inflicted by the corrupt officer and his crew at a South Side housing complex.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx brought the request before the judge as part of a review of cases handled by Watts’ team that has already led to 24 people having their convictions overturned. Foxx shook the hands of the men who had their cases dismissed Monday as they filed past her.
For some of Watts’ victims, many of whom say they were framed on drug charges, Monday’s short proceeding symbolized that justice had been served. One man said he had prayed for this day to come after years of reporting the abuse.
But for others, like 42-year-old Vondell Wilbourn, the day also brought a refreshed sense of fear. Watts pinned drug charges on Wilbourn twice because he refused to sell drugs for the officer, according to Wilbourn’s attorney.
”I think this will put another target on my back,” said Wilbourn, who served four years in prison. “At the time this was happening, we were telling everyone it was happening, but no one listened.”
Following the hearing, Foxx stood in front of the men and a gaggle of news cameras to offer an apology on behalf of the justice system.
“We could not stand behind the integrity of these cases because of the behavior of Mr. Watts,” Foxx said. “When things have gone wrong, we have to actively work to fix them.”
Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviewed the Watts convictions, has had a fivefold increase in case referrals, she said. The unit continues to sort through cases “in the double digits” that are linked to Watts.
Last year, prosecutors tossed convictions for 15 men arrested by Watts in what was the first mass reversal in Cook County history.
The latest reversals all involve drug cases brought between 2003 and 2008, court records show. The convictions resulted in sentences ranging from probation to four years in prison. All of the defendants who were incarcerated have long since been released from custody.
Watts’ reign ended in 2012, when he and Officer Kallatt Mohammed were arrested for shaking down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI informant. Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to federal prison. Watts was released in 2015 and has since moved to Las Vegas, records show.
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