CHICAGO (CBS) — Seven more people who were framed on drug charges by a corrupt former Chicago police sergeant and his team were exonerated Friday, when prosecutors agreed to dismiss their cases.
A Cook County judge agreed to vacate the convictions of six men and one woman falsely arrested by former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command.
That brings the number of people exonerated of drug charges fabricated by Watts and his crew to 50. Some of those framed by the corrupt officers served lengthy prison terms before their names were cleared.
“We’re now up to 50 people who have had their convictions overturned; 65 convictions over the last three years. It’s an enormous, enormous number. It is unprecedented in this county,” said defense attorney Josh Tepfer, who has helped clear most of the people framed by Watts and his crew.
Kenneth Hicks said he’s grateful to have his name cleared, but said, “I’m still messed up, you know, being institutionalized.
Watts pleaded guilty in 2012 to stealing from a homeless man who posed as a drug dealer as part of an undercover FBI sting. He admitted to routinely extorting money from drug dealers, and was sentenced to 22 months in prison.
Those exonerated on Friday said Watts should still be locked up, since he ruined so many lives.
Prosecutors have said Watts and the officers under his command routinely planted evidence and fabricated charges in order to further their own gun and drug trade.
In September, 18 men were exonerated of drug charges brought by Watts and his officers. Not long after that mass exoneration, another man was cleared in a case tied to Watts. Those 19 men returned to court on Friday to receive their official certificates of innocence.
Deon Willis said Watts and his officers framed him twice, in 2002 and 2008.
“I have two Xs on my background. No one wanted to hire me,” he said. “Now I’ve got a new start.”
Many of those who have had their convictions overturned said they faced significant challenges even after they finished serving time in prison.
“It prevented me from doing a lot; a job. I’m 42, and I haven’t worked a day in my life,” said Vondell Wilbourn, who was twice framed by Watts, in 2004 and 2005.
Watts and his officers were involved in at least 500 convictions. Attorneys with the Exoneration Project said they expect many more cases ultimately will be tossed out.