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Dexter Willis

Summary of the Watts scandal
On September 29, 2002, the day that Dexter Willis turned 18, corrupt Chicago police officers arrested him and falsely accused him of possessing a handgun as well as heroin and marijuana. The arrest came after he bought a bottle of soda and walked into the lobby of a building in the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois.

Willis said that when he walked into the lobby, an officer came up to him and asked “What side is the dope on?” Willis said he didn’t know and that he did not live there—he had been visiting his uncle.

The officer patted Willis down and pushed him against the wall. Willis was handcuffed and told he was being arrested for trespassing. When he was taken to the police station, officer Kallatt Mohammed put a .357-magnum revolver on a table and told Willis that he would be charged with possession of the weapon unless Willis gave information about the location of guns and drugs at the housing development.

Willis later said that Mohammed said that he and his superior, Sgt. Ronald Watts, needed to confiscate guns because “there is a war going on and so we want guns.”

When Willis said he had no information, Mohammed charged him with possession of the gun as well as possession of 28 baggies of heroin and 36 packages of marijuana. The police report claimed Willis said he needed the gun for protection.

On January 24, 2003, Willis pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of drugs and possession of a handgun. He was sentenced to boot camp.

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 badge and 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 protection payments 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 Law School, 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.

Beginning in December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed motions for new trials on behalf of dozens of men and women who claimed they were 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,” their motions said.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began investigating the cases and agreed that the convictions should be vacated and dismissed. By the end of 2021, more than 90 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On February 1, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, the convictions of 18 others who were framed by Watts and his fellow officers, were vacated and the charges were dismissed. In April 2022, more than 40 more convictions resulting from the corrupt actions of Watts and his crew were vacated and dismissed, bringing the total number of convictions vacated to more than 200.

On October 3, 2022, Willis’s conviction and the convictions of seven others who were framed by Watts and his team were vacated, and the charges were dismissed.

The exoneration was the second for Willis. On April 22, 2022, Willis was exonerated of a December 11, 2003 arrest on drug charges that resulted in a three-year prison sentence. In that case, Willis had been charged after he said he was unable to provide information to Mohammed about the location of drugs and guns. He was granted a certificate of innocence, and was awarded $60,000 in compensation from the state of Illinois. He filed a federal lawsuit in December 2022. He also filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/4/2022
Last Updated: 12/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Sentence:3 months
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No