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Cordero Payne

Summary of the Watts scandal
On June 8, 2004, 17-year-old Cordero Payne was leaving the Ida B. Wells public housing development where his grandmother lived in Chicago, Illinois, when he heard people begin yelling that police were arriving. Although Payne saw some people running, he just kept walking.

As he went out the back door, Chicago police officer Kallat Mohammed “grabbed me and brought me back in the building,” Payne later recalled. “He took me to the hallway where a bunch of other people were being detained” by Sgt. Ronald Watts and other members of Watts’s team of officers.

Mohammed began questioning Payne about drug activity in the building after Payne had been searched and had no drugs on him. “I kept telling him I [had] no idea what you are talking about,” Payne recalled. “Watts finally stopped and told Mohammed to stop questioning me.”

Not long after, Watts “pointed at me and a couple of others and said, ‘They are going with us,’” Payne said. He was taken to the police station. Later, Payne found out he was being charged with possession of 116 baggies of heroin.

On January 25, 2005, Payne pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of heroin. He later explained why he pled guilty. “I knew I probably wouldn’t beat the case,” Payne said. “I also was being held in county jail and there was a lot of violence and gangs, and I was scared. I was one of the littlest people in the jail.”

“I took the plea because [the prosecution] offered me boot camp,” he said.

On December 1, 2005, after he had completed boot camp and had been released, Payne was arrested again by Watts and his team. Payne was charged with possession of seven baggies of heroin and 20 baggies of cocaine. He again pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.

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 (CIU) 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 CIU began investigating the cases and agreed that the 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 conviction from the December 2005 arrest was vacated and dismissed.

By the end of 2021, more than 90 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

In April 2022, Payne’s conviction stemming from his 2004 arrest was among more than 40 additional convictions resulting from the corrupt actions of Watts and his crew to be vacated and dismissed, bringing the total number of convictions vacated to more than 200.

In June 2022, Payne was granted a certificate of innocence for the 2004 arrest. He filed a claim for compensation with the state of Illinois, and the Illinois Court of Claims awarded him $60,000. He also filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/5/2023
Last Updated: 12/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:2 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No