Lake County, Illinois Man Exonerated After 25 Year Struggle to Clear His Name
DNA Testing Cleared Bennie Starks, the Innocence Project’s Longest Active Client, in 2000, but Former Lake County Prosecutors Refused to Acknowledge the Science
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(Chicago, IL; January 7, 2012) – Innocence Project client Bennie Starks walked out of a Lake County, Illinois courthouse today a free man, ending a 25 year struggle to clear his name, including multiple rounds of DNA testing and three separate appeals. Newly elected State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim agreed to dismiss the remaining charges pending against Starks from a 1986 rape and battery. Though DNA testing from as early as 2000 excluded Starks as the perpetrator, former Lake County prosecutors repeatedly refused to acknowledge the results, coming up with improbable theories to deny Starks’ freedom.
“Former Lake County prosecutors put up a 16 year legal fight to deny Mr. Starks his freedom, coming up with ever more outrageous arguments to explain the DNA results,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “By agreeing to dismiss the remaining charges against Bennie Starks, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim has quickly and decisively signaled the beginning of a new era in Lake County where justice is valued over maintaining convictions.”
Starks was convicted of rape and battery of a 68-year-old victim in 1986. After initial DNA testing of semen found on her underwear excluded Starks in 2000, the former prosecutor Mike Mermel dismissed the results because they were from clothing. In 2004, attorneys were able to locate the rape kit and tested semen recovered from the victim that also excluded Starks. Again, Mermel dismissed the results claiming that she must have had sex with someone else before the rape, disregarding the fact the victim told the police that she hadn’t had sex in weeks prior to her attack.
Starks was ultimately forced to file three separate appeals in the case. After an appeals court reversed the rape charges (but failed to reverse the battery charges stemming from the same incident), Starks was released on bail in 2006. Yet, prosecutors continued to threaten to retry Starks. In May 2012, prosecutors were finally forced to dismiss the rape charges after an appeals court ruled that it would be unfair to the defendant to allow the prosecution to introduce the original trial testimony of the victim who had subsequently passed away. In December 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to overturn a decision by the intermediate appeals court finding that the DNA evidence undermines the battery conviction as well. Just days after being sworn into office as the Lake County State’s Attorney, Mike Nerheim announced that he would consent to dropping the remaining battery charge against Starks. Today was the first opportunity the case could be brought before Judge Phillips because jurisdiction of the case was technically still before the state’s intermediate appeals court.
“As a former prosecutor, it was shameful to see how former Lake County prosecutors disregarded the scientific evidence proving Mr. Starks’ innocence,” said Ron Safer, Managing Partner at Schiff Hardin LLP. “Thankfully State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim has taken a giant step in restoring public confidence in the system, and we commend him for finally seeing justice served for Mr. Starks.”
The Innocence Project first agreed to represent Starks in 1996. His case marks the longest open case in the organization’s history. Vanessa Potkin, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project who has worked on the case for more than 12 years, said, “Mr. Starks fight for justice has been a very long time coming. Since the first round of DNA testing pointing to his innocence in 2000, 232 other people have been exonerated by DNA evidence. While nothing can bring back the time he’s lost, he’s grateful that he has finally gotten the justice that has been denied him so long.”
At the original trial, the prosecution relied on a bite mark expert to testify that bite marks on the victim’s body matched those of the defendant. Bite mark analysis has been found to be highly unreliable, and two internationally recognized experts in the field reviewed the bite mark evidence in this case and found that they wouldn’t have even analyzed the evidence because it was of such low forensic value and had been compromised by evidence collection techniques. Faulty forensics have played a role in approximately 50% of the 302 DNA exonerations.
“It’s clear that the reliance on faulty forensics played a role in Mr. Stark’s wrongful conviction,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, a former Innocence Project Cardozo law clinic intern who continued to work on the case as a private attorney in Chicago. “Nearly four years ago, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report calling for better federal oversight to scientifically validate and set standards for forensic sciences. We hope this case will serve as a reminder to Congress to make this a priority.”
Jed Stone, a private attorney in Lake County, added, “Mr. Starks suffered terrible injustice at the hands of prosecutors in Lake County. But we all owe him a dept of gratitude for never giving up the fight to prove his innocence. His courage has helped restore justice to the Lake County.”
Other attorneys who assisted in the representation of Starks include Associate Brooks Schaefer, with Schiff Harden LLP and Lake County attorney John Curnyn.