BENNIE STARKS spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. In 1986, Starks was convicted of raping and assaulting a 68-year-old woman in Lake County (Waukegan). In 2006, after spending two decades in prison, an appeals court ordered a new trial on the rape charges after DNA testing on semen recovered from the victim excluded him. After the appeals court ordered a retrial, Mr. Starks was released on bond. In May of 2012, after having a motion for a continuance denied by the judge, the Lake County State’s Attorney dropped the rape charge (nolle prosequi). However, Mr. Starks battle was not over. The appeals court did not reverse the related battery charges when it reversed the rape charges. Starks’ attorneys maintained that he was innocent of all the charges because they stem from an incident that was committed by a single perpetrator, which DNA testing confirms was not Starks. He brought a new appeal challenging the battery charges.
In June of 2012, an appellate judge sided with Starks, ordering Lake County to hold a hearing at which Starks’ lawyers can argue for a new trial for battery. The judges wrote that the DNA would likely change the result of a new trial. Prosecutors asked the Appellate Court to reconsider. On August 24, 2012, appellate judges rejected the request, leaving Lake County to either hold the hearing or ask the state Supreme Court to review the case. One of Starks’ lawyers, Ronald Safer, said he could not imagine the Supreme Court taking up the matter and allowing prosecutors to try to preserve a conviction for a crime tied to a case that already had collapsed under the weight of DNA evidence.
On January 7, 2013, and only days into his first term, newly elected Lake County State’s Attorney, Mike Nerheim, officially dropped the remaining aggravated battery charge against Starks. Starks’ attorneys, Jed Stone, said: “For 2½ decades, a dark cloud has shrouded this courthouse. Today a ray of sunlight shines through that cloud because of Mike Nerheim.”
- In defiance of science, the beat goes on in Lake County (Chicago Tribune)
- Help Bennie Starks Get a Full Exoneration (Innocence Project)
- Schiff Hardin Obtains Exoneration of Wrongfully Convicted Man
- Lake County Prosecutors Dismiss 20-Year-Old Rape Case (Article and Audio) (CBS Chicago)
- Exonerated man’s ordeal ends: ‘I am overwhelmed with joy’ (Chicago Tribune)