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Vondell Wilbourn

Other Cook County Drug Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Cook_County_seal.jpg
On September 2, 2005, Chicago police officers working for Sgt. Ronald Watts arrested 17-year-old Joshua Curtis and 29-year-old Vondell Wilbourn after the officers claimed they saw Curtis hand $120 in cash to Wilbourn in exchange for heroin and cocaine.

The officers said they arrived at the Ida B. Wells public housing project and came into the building to see Wilbourn and Curtis drop 8 baggies of crack cocaine and 17 baggies of heroin.

Both men later told their defense attorneys they were being framed and that one officer, Kallatt Mohammed, punched Curtis for denying he had any drugs and then said, "Because you lied, you got your man (Wilbourn) locked up.

"However, because they didn’t believe there was any chance their claims would overcome the testimony of the officers, both pled guilty.

On October 11, 2005, Curtis pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to four years in prison. On November 10, 2005, Wilbourn pled guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison. Curtis was released on parole on January 13, 2007. Wilbourn was released on parole on September 1, 2006.

The conviction was the second for Wilbourn that resulted from an arrest made by officers in Watts’s unit. Wilbourn was arrested in July 2004 in the same public housing development on a charge of possession of eight baggies of cocaine. In that case, Watts filed a report saying that he saw Wilbourn reach into his right pants pocket with his right hand, pull out the drugs and drop them to the floor as he ran away. Although Wilbourn's right arm was in a sling and he was unable to reach into his pocket with it, he pled guilty in that case in September 2004 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In 2012, Watts and fellow officer Kallatt 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., another defendant who claimed he had been falsely convicted based on the corruption of Watts and his team. “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’s conviction should be vacated and dismissed the charge.

On September 24, 2018, the Cook County State's Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit dismissed Curtis’s conviction, as well as Wilbourn’s 2004 and 2005 convictions. They were granted certificates of innocence, clearing the way for them to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. In 2019, Curtis and Wilbourn filed federal civil rights lawsuits against the city of Chicago.

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

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/9/2018
Last Updated: 3/31/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:5 years and 6 months
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No