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Starks walks away a totally free man

Bennie Starks

Bennie Starks

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Updated: March 9, 2013 2:37AM



It took more than 26 years for Bennie Starks, 53, to clear his name from the brutal sexual assault for which he wrongfully spent 20 years behind bars.

DNA evidence cleared him of the 1985 attack in 2000. The last felony charge against the Chicago man was dropped Monday in a Lake County courtroom.

“I don’t even have any words. I’m overwhelmed with joy. It’s finally over,” Starks said.

Starks was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated battery in 1986. The alleged rape victim said she was grabbed by the neck, thrown to the ground, repeatedly punched in the face and sexually assaulted. The victim was hospitalized for 11 days after the attack which occurred in Waukegan. She has since died.

Bite mark evidence, now dismissed as “junk science” by Starks’ attorneys Jed Stone and Lauren Kaeseberg, was among the evidence used to convict Starks. He was 26 when he was sent to prison for 60 years.

Starks contacted the Innocence Project in 1997 to try to clear his name, Kaeseberg said. At the time, she was an intern with the national organization that works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

“Bennie is the longest client of the Innocence Project. He has fought so hard,” Kaeseberg said. “He’s just such an example of perseverance and faith.”

Starks said faith was what kept him going while he sat in prison waiting to clear his name. He spent about 20 years behind bars. Now, he said he plans to look for “any line of work.”

While in prison, he obtained a certificate in meat processing. He can also do data entry.

He said Monday that he planned to celebrate the aggravated battery charge getting dropped with family and friends. He is a grandfather to two grandchildren ages 7 and 4.

A legal technicality severed the aggravated battery charge from the sexual assault charge. The sexual assault charge was dropped against Starks in May.

Getting the aggravated battery dropped was among the first tasks Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim tackled once he took office in November.

“The people are going to dismiss count three, which is the only remaining count (against Starks),” Assistant State’s Attorney James Newman said.

Circuit Judge John Phillips signed the order dismissing the aggravated battery charge.

“The defendant is therefore released and dismissed from bond obligations ... it means there is nothing further before the court,” Phillips said.

Stone said the charge could not have been dismissed when former Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller was in office. Waller was state’s attorney from 1990 to 2012.

“I have said before that for two and a half decades a dark cloud shrouded this courthouse, wrongful convictions, junk science, DNA, coerced confessions. Today a ray of sunlight cracked through that cloud because of Mike Nerheim,” Stone said.

The 69-year-old alleged rape victim said that a teenager had assaulted her. The DNA profile taken from her that did not match Starks has not been matched to anyone, Kaeseberg said.



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