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Cordero Payne

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
On December 1, 2005, 18-year-old Cordero Payne was leaving a building at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois when he was stopped in the lobby by several Chicago police officers, including Sgt. Ronald Watts.

Payne knew Watts as a corrupt officer who had stopped him on several occasions in the past and let him go after he gave Watts money.

On this day, Watts and fellow officers grabbed Payne, handcuffed him, and asked where his drugs were located. Payne said he didn’t have any drugs and didn’t know where any were. One of the officers pushed him against a wall and punched him several times in the ribs, Payne later said.

Watts then said that if Payne didn’t have anything for him that he had something for Payne. Watts then arrested Payne and another man, James McGee, and took them to the police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue.

At the station, McGee and Payne were charged with possession of narcotics. Payne was accused of selling drugs to McGee. The officers claimed they confiscated 7 baggies of heroin and 20 baggies of cocaine from Payne.

On December 21, 2005, officer Elsworth Smith, who was part of the Watts team, testified at a preliminary hearing that while working undercover, he saw McGee hand money to Payne and in return Payne handed him drugs.

On November 20, 2006, Payne pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to one count of possession of heroin. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

That same day, McGee elected to go to trial before a judge without a jury and was acquitted.

Payne was released from prison on February 20, 2007.

This was the second time Payne had been arrested and convicted based on an arrest by Watts and his team. In June 2004, Payne had been arrested and ultimately pled guilty to possession of heroin. He had been sentenced to boot camp.

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 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 trial 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 began investigating the cases and agreed that convictions should be vacated and dismissed.

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

On February 11, 2019, Payne’s convictions were vacated and dismissed, bringing the total to more than 60 convictions erased in the Watts corruption scandal. He subsequently was granted a certificate of innocence, clearing the way for him to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. In May 2019, Payne was awarded $50,000 in state compensation. Also in May 2019, Payne filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/22/2019
Last Updated: 3/3/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:2 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No