A Cook County judge on Monday vacated the convictions of 10 men who were arrested by a unit of Chicago police officers led by corrupt Sgt. Ronald Watts. Four more men are expected to be exonerated Wednesday, which will bring the total number of Watts-related exonerees up to 63 people involving 82 tossed convictions.
Watts led a Chicago Police Department unit that allegedly shook down drug dealers and framed people for more than a decade at a South Side public housing complex.
Watts and another officer in the unit were arrested in 2012 and sent to federal prison.
“It’s a shame the way they let it go on for so long,” said Kim Wilbourn, 39, whose conviction was vacated Monday. “This man destroyed my physical (and) mental stability.”
Wilbourn said Watts “stalked” him when he was growing up in the Ida B. Wells complex, because of his older brother, Vondell Wilbourn. Vondell Wilbourn had two Watts-related drug convictions overturned last year.
Kim Wilbourn said Watts pressured him for information and evidence of crimes committed by his family members. But Wilbourn said he didn’t know anything about the alleged crimes.
Watts arrested Kim Wilbourn in September 2006.
“The man gave me 52 bags of heroin. Each and every bag had Fentanyl in it. And I literally told the first person (I could), ‘It’s not mine, he’s given me this, can someone please help me,’ ” Wilbourn said. “No one helped me, they looked at me, they shoved me away, they locked me up, they made me plead to a case.”
Wilbourn was sentenced to two years in prison.
He said Monday’s exoneration means that finally “someone out there cares.”
Wilbourn’s attorney Sean Starr called the Cook County State’s attorney an “aggressive partner” in seeking to have Watts-tied convictions overturned.
Starr called for the Chicago Police Department to fire any officers who participated in Watts’ corruption or covered up for it.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said there are a dozen officers on desk duty because of ties to Watts, but he said those officers have not been charged with any crimes and are still being investigated by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
A spokesperson for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability did not immediately respond to questions about the status or timeline of those investigations.
Attorney Joshua Tepfer said his office has heard from and vetted 38 more people who may have been wrongfully convicted because of Watts and his team. He said they have asked the Cook County State’s attorney to review their cases.
If those convictions are also overturned, it would bring the total number of exonerees tied to Watts above 100.
WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell contributed reporting.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice team. Follow him @pksmid.