Authorities vacated the convictions of seven more people arrested by notorious Chicago police sergeant Ronald Watts and his tainted tactical unit, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx announced Friday.
This latest wave of exonerations brings the total number of people whose Watts-era convictions have been overturned to at least 49.
“We found a pattern of misconduct by Watts and other officers in these cases, which caused our office to lose confidence in the initial arrests and validity of these convictions,” Foxx said in a statement. “May the defendants, who we now believe were victims, find a path forward in healing and justice.”
Cook County Judge Leroy Martin Jr. granted Foxx's motions and vacated the seven convictions Friday.
"I feel great," said Deon Willis, who was jailed twice as a result of arrests made by Watts and his crew and had his convictions overturned Friday.
"Now I got a new start. I definitely have a new start," Willis added. "We lived in the area where these police officers, they just they did what they wanted to do for a very long time. It came down to we had to come out of our hallways, out of our apartments, peeking out the doors making sure they’re not riding up the street. It was hard. It was hard but now it’s over."
A judge threw out the convictions of 18 men in September, with Foxx issuing an apology to those imprisoned by Watts, who critics say ran roughshod and virtually unsupervised for a decade on Chicago’s South Side.
Residents of the Ida B. Wells housing project had long argued they were being unjustly targeted.
"They put cases on people who didn't cooperate with their corrupt schemes, took bribes, stole money and drugs from drug dealers, and really ruined the lives of dozens - maybe hundreds," attorney Joel Flaxman said at the last mass exoneration. "These officers knew who they were, would go after them, and would frame them over and over again."
While even fellow officers pointed to corruption in the unit, only Watts and one of his officers, Kallatt Mohammed, were ever prosecuted for shaking down and framing residents of the housing project. Both went to prison.
"I never thought I’d be standing right here," said Kenneth Hicks, who was among the latest round of exonerations. "Once they get you they got you."