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Bennie Starks

NORTHWESTERN LAW

BLUHM LEGAL CLINIC

Center on Wrongful Convictions

A prosecutor finally did the right thing – 26 years after a wrongful conviction

— Rob Warden

Bennie Starks had been behind bars for two decades when he was freed after DNA testing excluded him as the source of semen recovered from his alleged victim in 2006, but his exoneration took another six years.

Starks was arrested shortly after a 69-year-old Waukegan woman reported on January 18, 1986, that she had been pulled into a ravine, beaten, bitten, and raped by a man who left his coat at the scene. A dry-cleaning receipt in the coat pocket led police to Starks, who acknowledged that the coat was his—but insisted that it had been stolen from him at a bar.

The evidence against Starks, 26, seemed overwhelming: The victim positively identified him. A forensic dentist, Dr. Russell Schneider, of Waukegan, concluded that his teeth matched a bite mark on the victim. A state forensic scientist, Sharon Thomas-Boyd, testified that serology testing—this was before the advent of DNA forensic testing—included him among possible sources of semen recovered from the victim’s vagina and underpants.

A Lake County jury found him guilty of both rape and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

A decade later, the New York Innocence Project accepted the case and sought DNA testing. After the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction in 2002, a judge ordered the testing over the strenuous objection of Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller.

A vaginal swab take n from the victim immediately after the crime could not be found, but testing of a semen stain in her underpants excluded Starks—clearly indicating that he was innocent, given that the victim had stated that she had not had consensual sex with anyone in the two weeks preceding the rape. The testing also showed that, contrary to Thomas-Boyd’s trial testimony, the serology results had excluded Starks as the source of semen.

In response to media inquiries, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Mermel, the head of felony prosecutions under Waller, maintained that the DNA results from the underpants did not prove Starks innocent. The only thing that could help Starks, Mermel said, would be his exclusion as the source of semen from inside the victim’s body. That, of course, seemed impossible at the time because a vaginal swab taken from the victim immediately after the crime was believed to have been lost or destroyed.

A few weeks later, however, the Northern Illinois Crime Laboratory located the swab, and DNA testing eliminated Starks as the source of semen on it—that is, as the source of semen from inside the victim’s body. Mermel then contended that the victim, who had moved to Mexico and since died, had not told the truth when she denied having consensual sex with anyone in the weeks preceding the rape.

Based on the DNA results, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial in 2006. Starks was released on bond. On the eve of a retrial, the prosecution dropped the rape charges, with the possibility of reinstating them later. But the aggravated battery conviction, which had not been contested on appeal, remained—even though, if Starks had not raped the victim, neither had he beaten her.

In 2011, Mermel resigned in the wake of a New York Times Magazine article exposing bizarre theories he expressed about why DNA was irrelevant in a series of Lake County cases. Michael Waller announced shortly thereafter that he would not seek reelection when his term expired in 2012.

In August 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court vacated Starks’s aggravated battery charge, still leaving open the possibility of a retrial on that charge. It was not until January 7, 2013, until the aggravated battery charges were dismissed by State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, who had been elected to succeed Waller two months earlier.


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Innocent man, jailed for 20 years, suing forensic experts

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http://rt.com/usa/starks-innocent-jail-suing-711/

Bennie Starks was released from prison in 2006, after being locked up for 20 years for a crime he never committed. He is now suing the forensic experts who falsely testified against him in a case of sexual assault.

Although Starks’ charges were dismissed, the 53-year-old man will never regain his lost years. In 1986, he was found guilty of assaulting and raping a 69-year-old woman from Waukegan, Ill., and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Government witnesses, two dentists and a forensic technician testified against him. The rape victim also identified him in a photo line-up, but Starks believes two police officers encouraged the woman to accuse him.

Dr. Carl Hagstrom and Dr. Russell Schneider, two dentists, testified that the bite marks on the victim’s body matched the marks left by Starks’ teeth. Their methodology, however, was outdated and unreliable, according to information obtained by the Courthouse News Service.

With government witnesses, forensic ‘experts’, and the victim herself alleging that Starks was the rapist, there was little he could do to keep himself out of prison. But in 2006, the Illinois Appellate Court vacated the man’s conviction and set up a retrial. DNA evidence cleared him of the 1986 rape, and Starks walked out of prison a free man.

It wasn’t until January 2013 that all of his charges were dismissed and his record was clean.

“I’m just overwhelmed with joy,” Starks told ABC after walking out of the courtroom with a clean slate. The man’s attorney, Jed Stone, compared the outcome to a “ray of sunlight that cracked through a cloud”. 

But what Starks can’t forget is the false testimony by the state’s forensic technician, Sharon Thomas-Boyd, as well as the two dentists who matched his teeth to the bite marks. Thomas-Boyd falsely claimed that Starks’ semen matched the DNA found on the victim.

US District Judge Gary Feinerman supported Starks’ theory that the forensic experts engaged in a conspiracy to falsely accuse him.

“The complaint amply alleges that the police defendants, the dentist defendants, and Thomas-Boyd all worked to get Starks convicted for a crime he did not commit, and it is more plausible that they each made their contributions to that effort in the context of an agreement to secure a wrongful conviction than that, by some wild coincidence, everyone who came into contact with Starks’s case independently developed a desire to see him convicted and a willingness to lie in pursuit of that goal,” the judge said, according to court documents.

It is unlikely that the police officers will be penalized for lying to the jury, since they hold impunity for doing so. But it is possible that they could face charges for prompting the rape victim to falsely identify Starks as the suspect.

Starks claims the conspiracy caused him emotional distress. The Innocence Project, a group that originally helped the man clear his name, told ABC that in cases where innocent men are imprisoned, misidentification is most often the cause.

“Bennie’s case features a wrongful identification and also faulty forensics,” Lauren Kaeseberg of the Innocence Project said in January. “Misidentifications make up 75 percent of wrongful convictions.”

In the state of Illinois, committing conspiracy or perjury under oath or affirmation is a class 3 felony, which could result in 2-5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $25,000. The lawsuit accuses the forensic experts of filing false reports, giving false statements, conspiring against Starks and pursuing wrongful prosecutions.

The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, but Judge Feinerman denied all motions except the intentional infliction of emotion distress.

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