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Nerheim drops charges against Bennie Starks

Bennie Starks

Bennie Starks

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Updated: January 7, 2013 7:22AM

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim announced Wednesday he is dismissing the aggravated battery charges against Bennie Starks, who was released from prison after 20 years when DNA tests showed he was not involved in the case of which he was accused.

“I have carefully reviewed the facts, reports, physical evidence and Appellate Court opinions regarding the Bennie Starks aggravated battery charge. I have also considered the fact that Mr. Starks has served approximately 20 years in the Department of Corrections,” Nerheim said.

“Though there would be additional evidence to present to a judge or jury in any subsequent evidentiary hearing, I have decided to dismiss the aggravated battery charge. This decision does not reflect any opinion as to whether I believe Mr. Starks is guilty or not guilty,” he said.

A Lake County jury previously found Starks guilty of aggravated battery. Nerheim said the evidence included the victim’s identification of the defendant, some property of Starks that was found at the crime scene, some scratches located on Stark’s body and a bite-mark comparison of oral impressions left on the victim’s body.

But the Appellate Court has since issued an opinion showing concern regarding the bite-mark technology utilized in the 1986 case. Plus, the victim has died and a court ruling has been issued preventing her previous trial testimony from being admitted in any subsequent hearing or trial.

Nerheim said that in considering the history of the case, its evidence, any limited benefit in proceeding with this charge, and the fact that Starks has served more time than he could receive after any subsequent trial, “the interests of justice are best served by a dismissal at this time.”

Starks was convicted in 1986 of raping a 68-year-old woman and sentenced to 60 years in prison, but his conviction was overturned 20 years later after DNA showed he could not have been the source of semen found on the victim’s panties. The appeals court also ordered Starks be freed on bond while awaiting a new trial.

Prosecutors had suggested the victim had sex with an unknown man shortly before the attack, even though she testified she had not had sex for at least a week.

Starks was one of four Lake County cases where contradictory DNA results resulted in charges being dropped during the term of Nerheim’s predecessor, Michael Waller.

The others were accused child murderer Jerry Hobbs, freed after he spent five years in Lake County Jail; Juan Rivera, convicted three times for the 1992 rape and murder of Holly Staker of Waukegan, who was released after 20 years in prison; and James Edwards, convicted of murdering Waukegan businessman Fred Reckling in 1994.

Murder charges against Edwards were dropped, but he is serving 60 years in prison for a separate armed robbery. Hezekia Whitfield was charged in Reckling’s murder after he was linked to the case through DNA. His case is pending in Lake County Circuit Court.

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