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'He took everything from me'

CHICAGO — A Cook County judge Monday morning overturned the drug convictions of 10 men who joined a growing list of people who in recent years have been exonerated after being framed by disgraced former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts.

One by one, nine of the men, all African-American, filed into Cook County Judge LeRoy Martin Jr.’s courtroom and stood before him as prosecutors filed a motion to vacate their convictions. The men had all served time in prison because of the false charges, their attorneys said. Martin granted each motion following a brief hearing. The 10th man, who was in police custody on an unrelated matter, was later brought into the court to have his conviction overturned, his attorneys said.

It was the fourth time a similar scene involving Watts has played out at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building. In less than two years, dozens of people have had their drug convictions vacated during mass exoneration.

Attorney Sean Starr said Watts and the officers who worked with him targeted people at the former Ida B. Wells public housing complex on the city’s South Side, some them just people who were just visiting the complex. Starr said the men tried to tell officials about the false charges, but no one took them seriously.

“These people told as many people as they could and no one listed,” Starr said after the hearing. “This was an open secret.”

Joshua Tepfer, an attorney who has been working with people wrongly convicted because of Watts, said attorneys are working on the cases of an additional 38 people who they believe were also wrongly accused and convicted on drug charges. Tepfer and Starr expected a similar hearing to take place Wednesday to address the convictions of four other men.

Kim Wilbourn, one of the men whose conviction was overturned Monday, said he still has nightmares about what happened. He was visiting a friend at the Wells public housing complex when he was first detained by Watts. That interaction lead to him serving about three years in prison, Wilbourn said.

“You understand what this man did to me,” Wilbourn said after the hearing. “He took everything from me, not only that, he destroyed my family, he destroyed my mental ability I will never be the same.”

Watts continued to work as a police officer despite mounting allegations and a lengthy internal police probe as well as investigations by the state attorney’s office and the FBI. Watts was later convicted on federal charges and sentenced to 22 months in prison. He was released in 2015 and has since moved to Las Vegas.

In the wake of the allegations, 15 Chicago police officers tied to Watts were placed on desk duty pending an investigation into their conduct. Information about the status of the investigation was not immediately available Monday morning.

Zarice Johnson speaks to the media following his and 9 others sentences being vacated and dismissed at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Chicago. There were a total of 10 people whose cases were vacated and dismissed today, including Henry Thomas, Cordero Payne, Zarice Johnson, Sydney Harvey, Alvin Waddy, Kim Wilbourn, Derrick Lewis, Gregory Dobbins, Raynard Carter, Darron Byrd. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)