By Lisa Black, Tribune reporter
12:26 pm, January 7, 2013
A wrongfully convicted man who spent 20 years in prison for rape and battery had a happy final day in court today as Lake County officially dropped the last charge in a case that dates back to 1986.
“I don’t even have any words. I am overwhelmed with joy. It’s finally over,” Bennie Starks said outside the Lake County courthouse this morning, minutes after all the details of dropping the case had been ironed out.
Days into his first term in office last month, Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim agreed to vacate the final charge of aggravated battery, reversing the course of retired Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller.
“For 2½ decades, a dark cloud has shrouded this courthouse,” Starks’ attorney Jed Stone said. “Today a ray of sunlight shines through that cloud because of Mike Nerheim.”
The case has a byzantine history that reaches back to 1986.
Starks, 53, who lives in Chicago, spent 20 years in prison for raping and battering a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan before DNA pointed away from him.
The victim had identified Starks as her attacker, authorities had said his jacket was found near the scene and bite marks on the woman matched him. His attorneys called the dental evidence into question, and he said his jacket had been stolen from him.
He was freed six years ago after DNA evidence indicated the woman had had sex with someone else and appeals judges ordered a new trial. Prosecutors continued to pursue the rape charge against Starks, arguing the woman must have had consensual sex with another man, although she said the opposite at trial.
Prosecutors finally dropped the rape charge in May, but the battery charge survived because it had been split from the rape case by a prior court ruling.
In June, the appeals court ordered Lake County to hold a hearing where Starks’ lawyers could argue for a new trial on the battery charge. Lake County called on appeals judges to reconsider and, when they declined, asked the state Supreme Court for review.
The Illinois Supreme Court declined to do so on Nov. 28, one week before Nerheim said he would end Starks’ prosecution.
“He’s finally cleared his name,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney who had been working with Starks since 2004 for the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted.
“He’s exonerated in every way … he can move forward … now he can explain a 25-year gap in his work history.”