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Exonerated man’s ordeal ends: ‘I am overwhelmed with joy’

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.”

lblack@tribune.com

Twitter: @LisaBChiTrib

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2 dentists sue colleague for criticizing their bite-mark testimony

By STEVE MILLS – Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — In the ongoing battle over the use of bite-mark evidence, two Chicago-area dentists have opened a new legal front, suing a colleague for alleged defamation because he used a Lake County, Ill., rape case they worked on as an example of the oft-criticized discipline gone awry. Dentists Russell Schneider, of Waukegan, and Carl Hagstrom filed their lawsuit against Michael Bowers, a dentist in California who is a frequent critic of his fellow forensic odontologists for work that has led to numerous wrongful convictions.

The two dentists allege in their lawsuit that Bowers spoke at a conference of forensic dentists in Chicago this year and included a case they worked on in a list of 10 wrongful convictions caused by bite-mark evidence. That, the two allege, was wrong and subjected them to ridicule and a loss of business.

Bowers declined to comment, as did his attorney.

Bite-mark testimony has been criticized by courts for its lack of a scientific foundation, essentially leaving dentists to compare by visual examination bite marks on a victim’s skin with X-rays or molds of a suspect’s teeth and trying to determine if they match. Even some of the forensic discipline’s leading practitioners, stung by reversals linked to DNA evidence, now argue that bite marks are best used to exclude suspects, not identify them.

A 2004 Tribune investigation, “Forensics Under the Microscope,” showed that bite-mark evidence had been accepted by courts despite a lack of scientific rigor to justify its broad claims, and that its use in criminal trials had contributed to a number of wrongful convictions.

Bite-mark testimony has fallen out of favor among many prosecutors.

Schneider and Hagstrom filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court in November. They asked for an unspecified sum in damages.

Schneider and Hagstrom examined evidence for Lake County prosecutors in the case against Bennie Starks, who was convicted in 1986 of pulling a 69-year-old Waukegan woman into a ravine and beating and raping her. Schneider and Hagstrom testified at trial that they compared Starks’ teeth to a bite mark on the woman’s shoulder, and that there was a match.

Starks was convicted and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence.

In 2006, after Starks had served nearly 20 years, the Illinois Appellate Court granted him a new trial because DNA tests excluded him as the source of semen on the victim’s underwear; that evidence, the court said, showed that a crime-lab analyst had presented false evidence at trial.

The appeals court did not rule on the bite-mark evidence. Examinations of Schneider and Hagstrom’s work by two dentists retained by Starks’ attorneys concluded that their work was flawed. Those two dentists said Schneider and Hagstrom mistook the upper jaw for the lower and the lower for the upper.

“The victim was attacked by one person who sexually assaulted her. We know that wasn’t Bennie Starks, so it wasn’t Bennie Starks who bit her,” said Jed Stone, one of Starks’ attorneys. “There is no other interpretation of this evidence that makes any sense and isn’t completely fanciful.”

Although Starks was awarded a new trial nearly six years ago, Lake County prosecutors still have not retried him.

Schneider and Hagstrom allege in their lawsuit that Bowers, in a presentation at the February conference, listed the Starks case first in his list of cases in which bite-mark evidence had contributed to a wrongful conviction.

They say Schneider stood up and told Bowers that Starks’ conviction was not reversed because of any of the bite-mark evidence, but Bowers “ignored plaintiff’s statement and did not retract his assertion that the Bennie Starks conviction was premised upon faulty bite-mark testimony.”

“Whether or not he had sexual intercourse with her … has nothing to do with my clients,” said Michael Krause, one of the attorneys for the two dentists, neither of whom returned calls for comment. “My clients feel that their reputations have been harmed by Bowers’ statements. It’s actually quite simple.”

http://www.macon.com/2011/12/25/1838917/2-dentists-sue-colleague-for-criticizing.html

Bitemark Book Review

Forensic Odontology is a fascinating and challenging subject. The explosion of technological and procedural advances coupled with the general publics increased awareness through the media such as “CSI” has made forensic sciences appealing to many and seemingly infallible to others.

I have known Dr. Bowers for over twenty years. We first made acquaintance in Louisville, Kentucky in 1989 while challenging the ABFO dental certification board examination. Over these years he has earned the respect of all others in this field with his determined dedication to further forensic odontology into a respected discipline of the forensic sciences.

The second edition of “Forensic Dental Evidence: An Investigatorʼs Handbook” edited by Dr. C. Michael Bowers is written for those whose desire the knowledge, background and understanding of forensic dentistry. This book is essential reading and a valuable asset for any investigator, lawyer, medical examiner, nurse or dentist that has an interest or a role in a forensic dental case.

A highlight of this handbook is the discussion of the wrongful convictions and erroneous bitemark opinions that have surfaced in the past decade. In the early 1990s Dr. Bowers and others become cautious in the manner in which bitemark opinions were being used to identifying specific individuals in an open population. Currently there have been 10 exonerations of individuals who have served many years in prison that were falsely imprisoned as a result of faulty bitemark evidence and incorrect opinions. These opinions were not based in science and were without validity or reliability. Dr. Bowers asan impartial dental expert and DNA evidence resulted in the exoneration of these innocent individuals.

Dr. Bowers determined work in educating and informing the forensic community of the need for scientifically validated opinions in the 1990s went largely neglected by forensic dentists. In 1999 the ABFO performed a bitemark workshop to examine the ability of the expert to properly discern the biter from a lineup of unknowns. The ABFO published a paper with the results that reported the ability of the forensic dentists to identify the correct perpetrator with moderate accuracy of 86%. What was not reported was the high level of false positives that accompanied these findings. Dr. Bowers high ethical standards compelled him to uncover the actual findings that revealed this high false positive rate that was not exposed in the scientific paper published by the ABFO.

Recognizing that improvements were necessary in the forensic sciences Congress directed the National Academy of Science to study the problem. In 2009 the National Academy published a report called “Strengthening Forensic Science in the UnitedStates: A Path Forward” which was a comprehensive review of all the forensic sciences,including bitemark analysis. The findings from the report were the same as Dr. Bowers had been teaching and writing about for years. It was not until after the report was published did the dental forensic specialty group begin to acknowledge the need for change. Fortunately this process has begun and positive changes are currently being
made. This handbook relates and discusses all the problems identified by the National Academy of Science.

In this book Dr. Bowers has partnered himself with many of the worlds foremost forensic scientists and dental experts. This handbook offers the latest information available to the forensic community and beyond. It will function to advance the profession and allow justice to be served for all.