A Cook County judge on Wednesday vacated the 2006 conviction and dropped all charges against a man who was convicted at the hands of a disgraced Chicago police officer and his team.
Lionel White was sentenced ten years ago to five years in prison under a plea deal he said he reluctantly accepted while facing a series of false charges.
“It’s been a long time that I’ve been trying to bring somebody’s attention to what happened to me,” he said today. “And finally, it happened.”
According to the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, White was beaten by a member of Sergent Ronald Watts tactical team to the point where he required hospitalization in 2006. White claims that in an attempt to cover-up the beating, Watts and his partner planted 100 bags of heroin on him.
While facing the possibility of a mandatory life sentence, White accepted a “one-time only” plea deal for reduced charges and a five-year sentence. Still, even after accepting the offer White maintained his innocence, telling the judge “[The police] was in my house beating me. This is wrong. I am pleading guilty because I’m scared.”
White later reported the police misconduct but said his claims were ignored. He ultimately spent two years in prison and was released in 2008.
Earlier this year, White’s case was given a second look after other residents of the same housing projects, Ben Baker and Clarissa Glenn, had their three convictions at the hands of Watts overturned. Baker went to prison for 10 years, all the while insisting he had been set up by Watts and his crew.
Watts and a second officer, Kallat Mohammed, both went to jail themselves for their alleged misdeeds. But two whistleblowing officers alleged that Watts’ entire tactical team was corrupt. And residents accused the officers of running their own drug operation and shaking down and framing other drug dealers in the neighborhood.
“Yes, it was common knowledge,” White said. “But everybody ignored it.”
After Watts’ conviction, Baker was eventually set free.
This month, both the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the City of Chicago Law Department said they would not oppose the appointment of a so-called “Special Master” to investigate potential wrongdoing by Watts and his crew.
The development has the potential to open up hundreds, if not thousands of cases, exposing the city to potential liability for wrongful prosecutions, and allegations of criminal activity by officers who are still on the street.
“I think people are finally waking up to what was going on and how much damage was done in this community for a decade plus,” said Joshua Tepfer, White’s attorney. “This is the fourth conviction that has been overturned in the last year, based on the conduct of these officers over a ten year period.”
The proposed “Special Master”, if approved by a Cook County judge, would be tasked with identifying other potential victims.