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Lionel White, Jr.

Other Cook County Drug Exonerations
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In 2006, 17-year-old Lionel White Jr. and his father, Lionel White Sr., were both falsely accused of drug possession by Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command.

Both ultimately pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court. The elder White was sentenced to five years in prison. His son was sentenced to two years probation.

Their ordeal began in March 2006, when Watts and some of his officers came to Lionel White Sr.’s door at the Ida B. Wells public housing development at 575 East Browning Avenue in Chicago and threatened to break it down unless White Sr., let them inside.

Inside, Watts demanded, “Give me what you got. Them guys don’t want you selling nothing.” White Sr. understood Watts to be asking for any drugs that were in the apartment and that “them guys” referred to Wilbert Moore’s drug-selling operation, which was located across the street at 574 East Browning Avenue.

The officers ransacked the apartment, but found no drugs. Watts and another officer, Kallatt Mohammed, threatened to “get y’all ass” and if Watts ever caught him with drugs, “you’re gonna pay.”

A few weeks later, on April 24, 2006, Watts and officer Alvin Jones returned to the apartment and demanded entry. When White Sr. opened the door, officer Alvin Jones punched him in the face and burst inside along with Watts. White ran to a window and began shouting for help, but Jones dragged him back and began beating him. White was handcuffed and arrested. Jones told him he would be charged with aggravated battery.

When White Sr. arrived at the police lockup, he learned he was also being charged with possession of 100 bags of heroin. Jones filed a police report, which Watts and Mohammed also signed, saying that while they were conducting a narcotics investigation at 575 East Browning Avenue, they saw White emerge from a hallway, carrying heroin. They claimed White saw the officers and fled. Jones caught and subdued him, but not before White attempted to punch Jones.

Jones said in his report that he blocked White Sr.’s punches and subdued him with several blows. During the struggle, the report said, White dropped a plastic bag containing 100 bags of heroin.

Ultimately, White Sr. was charged with possession of the heroin. Because of prior felony convictions, he faced a potential sentence of life in prison without parole. On June 26, 2006, the prosecution made White an offer: plead guilty on the spot in return for a five-year prison term.

White Sr. accepted the prosecution’s offer, but during the plea hearing, he said that the officers were “in my house beating me…your Honor. This is wrong. I am pleading guilty because I’m scared. That’s the honest to God truth, your honor.” He then pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to five years in prison.

While in prison, White Sr. wrote to the Chicago Police Office of Professional Standards, which investigates police corruption, and complained that Watts and Jones had beaten and framed him.

Not long after, on July 23, 2006, White’s son, Lionel Jr., was standing outside the Wells complex when Watts came up and pushed him up against the building. When White Jr. said he did not have anything illegal, Watts said, “Take it up with Al,” referring to officer Alvin Jones. “Al wants you,” Watts said.

White Jr. was taken to the police station and charged with drug possession. Watts claimed he found 53 baggies of heroin in White’s clothing.

On October 17, 2006, White Jr. pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of narcotics. He was sentenced to two years probation.

In October 2008, after the elder White was released from prison on parole, he encountered Watts. When White told him his actions were wrong, Watts replied, “You just caught the bad end of the stick.”

In 2012, Watts and Mohammed were caught on tape stealing money from a man they believed was a drug courier, but who was in fact working as a confidential FBI informant. In 2013, Watts and Mohammed pled guilty in U.S. District Court to taking money from the informant. Mohammed was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

Federal prosecutors said Watts “used his position as a sergeant with the Chicago Police Department to shield his own criminal activity from law enforcement scrutiny. He recruited another CPD officer into his crimes, stealing drug money and extorting protections from the drug dealers who terrorized the community that he (Watts) had sworn to protect.”

In 2006, Ben Baker was convicted twice—once alone and a second time with his wife, Clarissa Glenn, on charges of narcotics possession based on false testimony from Watts. In 2015, Joshua Tepfer, an attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago School of Law, filed a petition to vacate Baker’s first conviction, citing the corruption of Watts and his unit. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed in January 2016 that Baker’s first conviction should be vacated, and the petition was granted. Later in 2016, a petition filed on behalf of Baker and Glenn also was granted.

In December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Lionel White Sr. “The full known scope of the corrupt, more-than-decade-long criminal enterprise of Sergeant Watts…shows that Sergeant Watts led a tactical team of Chicago police officers that engaged in systematic extortion, bribery, and other related crimes…from as far back as the late 1990s through 2012,” the motion said.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that White Sr.’s conviction should be vacated and dismissed the charge.

In November 2017, following a re-investigation of numerous other cases involving Watts, the Cook County State's Attorney's conviction integrity unit dismissed 17 convictions involving 15 more defendants, including Lionel White Jr.

By 2018, more than 50 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

In 2018, White Jr. filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Chicago. He obtained a certificate of innocence and in August 2019, he was granted $25,000 in state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/28/2018
Last Updated: 9/10/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2006
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Probation
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No