A Cook County judge on Thursday paved the way for a South Side man to seek Illinois compensation for serving two years in prison on drug charges that were thrown out because of their link to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts.
Watts was arrested in 2012 with officer Kallat Mohammed, a member of the team Watts supervised. They both pleaded guilty to stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant. Each served a federal prison sentence.
That corruption has led to scrutiny of some of the cases the officers worked on. So far judges have overturned four convictions linked to Watts.
The case in court on Thursday regarded, Lionel White, 44, who was arrested by a tactical team led by Watts in 2006. White was convicted that year and sentenced to five years in prison. He got out on parole in 2008.
Last month Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., chief of the court’s criminal division, vacated the conviction.
At a brief hearing Thursday, Martin signed the order for what is known as a certificate of innocence. That designation allows White to petition the Illinois Court of Claims for compensation for his time behind bars. White’s attorney, Joshua Tepfer, said that could come out to tens of thousands of dollars.
In court, Martin asked no questions about the case.
“Circumstances do lead to Mr. White’s lack of culpability,” he said.
“One thing about Mr. White’s case that is compelling is that he made an outcry [about his innocence] from the beginning, much like Baker did,” Martin added, referring to Ben Baker, a South Side man who spent nearly 10 years in prison because of two Watts-linked drug convictions that were both thrown out last year.
Baker’s wife, Clarissa Glenn, was convicted with him in one of those cases and sentenced to probation. Her conviction was also also thrown out last year.
A police spokesman told WBEZ last month that the department’s general counsel, Charise Valente, has a begun a review of the overturned convictions and related allegations against the involved officers, several of whom remain on duty.
Civil-rights advocates in November asked the court to appoint an investigator with subpoena powers to identify other wrongful convictions linked to Watts. Last month, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration said they did not oppose that request.
Watts also factored into Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s abrupt November dismissal of Ernie Brown as executive director of the county’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
As first reported by WBEZ, Preckwinkle fired Brown after reading an article about a police unit he once commanded. The article argued a “code of silence” protected Watts and other corrupt cops in the unit.