By Kathleen Hennessey
Bennie Starks is one of a kind. His smile is infectious and his presence is undeniably welcoming. Bennie has the ability to make you feel like you’ve been his friend for as long as you can remember even though you just met him five minutes ago. As Bennie’s student contact in Loyola’s Life After Innocence Clinic, I’ve really enjoyed being his contact from the day I met him. It’s hard to believe how warm and friendly Bennie is after everything he has been through. Bennie was wrongly convicted of and incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1986, when he was just 26 years old, Bennie was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery. The victim, a woman in her late 60s, identified Bennie as the man who dragged her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her.
Bennie was serving a 60 year prison sentence when DNA evidence suggested his innocence in the early 2000s. When faced with this new evidence, prosecutors argued that the semen could have come from a different man whom the victim might have had consensual sex with earlier in the day, even though the victim testified that she had not had sex for weeks before the attack. In 2006 the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District overturned Bennie’s conviction and he was released on bond. Prosecutors continued to insist upon Bennie’s guilt for six more years. In 2012 prosecutors dropped the rape charge but refused to drop the battery charge. A short while later, when the new State’s Attorney in Lake County took office, he agreed to drop the remaining rape charge. Starks was finally exonerated of all charges and received his Certificate of Innocence on January 7, 2013, when he was 53 years old.
Just when it seemed Bennie got the happy ending he deserved, the story took a turn for the worse. Starks filed a civil suit against the Waukegan police department and the forensic experts who testified against him in 2014. Now, the Waukegan police have petitioned the court to revoke Bennie’s Certificate of Innocence. A Certificate of Innocence isn’t just an order from a court; it requires an exoneree to jump through a number of hoops and actually prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that they are innocent. A Certificate of Innocence also allows an exoneree to petition for expungement of their criminal record, obtain mental health services and receive compensation from the state. Perhaps most importantly though, a Certificate of Innocence signifies legal recognition that a terrible mistake was made and that the individual was made to suffer because of inherent failures of the criminal justice system. Taking this away from Bennie would be taking away the State’s validation of its mistakes and Bennie’s innocence. It would also close the door to many services rightly due to him. The Waukegan police are using the threat of revoking his Certificate of Innocence to bully him. Their threat of revocation effectively signals to all exonerees that they will never truly be free from the shackles of their wrongful incarceration because at a moment’s notice the state could rip that validation away from them. It is repugnant that, in the quest for “justice” and punitive measures, the police and prosecution are equally obsessed by the quest to cover their own mistakes and misdeeds that they would torment an innocent man for such a long time. Hopefully the court recognizes the motivation behind the actions of the Waukegan police and does not allow the revocation to go through.
This post reflects the personal opinions of the author and not those of Life After Innocence.