In 2004, Vondell Wilbourn lay in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound to his wrist, when he got a visit from a Chicago police sergeant offering to “take care of” the shooter.
Sgt. Ronald Watts wanted something in return. He wanted Wilbourn to go to work for him — selling drugs, Wilbourn recalled. Wilbourn refused, and that’s when the now-infamous police sergeant framed him, he said, leading to two stretches in the penitentiary on bogus drug-dealing charges.
On Monday, Wilbourn, now 42, stood in the lobby of the George N. Leighton Courthouse — along with 17 similarly wronged men — having learned they had just been exonerated.
“I’m still at a loss for words. I don’t believe it’s happening,” said Wilbourn, standing with his 2-year-old son and 5-month-old baby slumbering in a stroller.
In a hearing lasting just a few minutes, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx made the request for the exonerations.
That means 42 people — so far — have been exonerated in cases tied to Watts’ decade of fabricated charges.
After Monday’s hearing, Foxx held a news conference with some of those men and their attorneys.
“The system owes an apology to the men who stand behind us,” Foxx said. “We know that what was happening with Sgt. Watts, and the way he ran his operation, is that there were many men and women who fell victim to his corrupt ways.”
The latest decision comes a year after convictions were tossed in another mass exoneration of 15 men who were caught in Watts’ web of planted drugs, falsified reports and false witness testimonies.
According to the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, which had worked on several of the latest cases, the 18 men whose convictions were overturned Monday were wrongly accused from 2002 to 2008.
“Those officers were allowed to remain on the streets and make these mass arrests over and over and over again for close to a decade — and that’s why we’re in this mess, and that’s why we’re lucky to have a state’s attorney’s office [that’s] willing to finally keep the promises to clean up police corruption and start to get a measure of justice,” said Joshua Tepfer, an Exoneration Project attorney who represents 12 of the men.
Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed were indicted on federal charges in 2012 after one of their targets turned out to be an FBI informant. A little less than a year ago, 15 officers serving under him were demoted to desk duty.
The longest sentences of Watts’ targets stretched to almost a decade in prison before they were tossed. Now, the 15 men exonerated last November are suing the city for its alleged complicity in the police department’s “code of silence.”
Wilbourn, who now lives in DeKalb, was thankful for Monday’s decision, but wished it had come sooner. He said he missed the first five years of his daughter’s life while locked up in prison.
“We complained, we complained, we complained. Wrote letters — did everything. Nobody listened,” he said.