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County’s top prosecutor leaves ‘only job I ever wanted’

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller will retire after 22 years. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller will retire after 22 years. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

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Four Controversial Cases

Bennie Starks: He was convicted in 1986 for the brutal rape of an elderly woman that had occurred in Waukegan in 1985. He was released from prison in 2006, 20 years into his 60-year sentence, because the Appellate Court found the defense had not been allowed to properly cross-examine the victim. He was granted a new trial. Sperm evidence was located in an evidence locker and was found to not match Starks. Sexual assault charges against Starks were dropped.

Juan Rivera: The Waukegan resident was sentenced to life for the 1992 rape and stabbing murder of Holly Staker, 11, after he confessed to police. He was re-sentenced to life after his third trial in Lake County. However, the Appellate Court overturned his guilty conviction earlier this year partially because DNA found in the girl’s body did not match Rivera’s. Rivera spent almost 20 years behind bars. No one has been charged with her murder.

Jerry Hobbs: He spent five years in Lake County Jail for the Mother’s Day 2005 stabbing murder of his 8-year-old daughter Laura and her 9-year-old friend Krystal Tobias. Hobbs confessed to police during a 20-hour interrogation. He was released in 2010 after DNA evidence taken from the scene was matched to a man later identified as Jorge Torres, a former Zion resident. Torres has since been charged with the murder. Torres was sentenced to five life sentences for unrelated violent murders in Virginia.

James Edwards: He was sentenced to life for murdering Waukegan appliance store owner Frederick Reckling in 1994. However, DNA evidence recovered from the scene was matched to Hezekia Whitfield. First-degree murder charges against Edwards were dropped and Whitfield was charged with the Reckling murder. Edwards is in custody at Menard Correctional Center serving a 60-year sentence for an unrelated armed robbery. The case against Whitfield is pending in Lake County court.

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Updated: January 26, 2013 2:07AM

After serving as Lake County’s top prosecutor for more than two decades, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller is retiring.

Waller has made decisions on criminal cases, some of them controversial, for 22 years and his last day in office will be Dec. 3.

“It’s been a great job,” Waller, 64, said. “It’s been very fulfilling and I’m walking out the door with my head held high.”

The Waukegan resident started his career in 1973 as a Lake County assistant state’s attorney.

Like others in the position, Waller started prosecuting cases in branch court. He was assigned to a high-profile murder case in 1976. Waller prosecuted Frank Slago III for the murder of his Libertyville High School classmate, cheerleader Kimberly Muno, 16. Her partially frozen body was found in a creek off Hanlon Road, west of the Tri-State Tollway in rural Waukegan on Jan. 2, 1976. The appellate court upheld Slago’s conviction.

“It was an emotional case. I was assigned to it at a relatively early point in my career,” Waller said.

He worked as an assistant state’s attorney from 1973 until 1979, when he moved into private practice for seven years, and returned to the State’s Attorney’s Office in 1986 to become its chief deputy. He was appointed State’s Attorney in 1990, was elected in 1992 and was re-elected four times after.

Waller announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election. Republican Mike Nerheim of Gurnee, who was elected Nov. 6, will be sworn in as the next state’s attorney on Dec. 3.

“I love working in this office ... I guess I kept running for re-election because I kept getting elected,” he said. “This is really the only job I ever wanted to do. I think what I’m really proud of is that for 22-plus years, I’ve run a very professional, non-partisan State’s Attorney’s Office.”

He has seen the number of attorneys double during his tenure. There are now 75.

The State’s Attorney’s Office has handled more than 90,000 felony cases since Waller took the lead role. About 340 of those were murder cases, he said.

Four of those cases came under public scrutiny after DNA evidence pointed to other suspects.

“After the original decisions were made, whenever (there was) new evidence, we’ve always reviewed it and made a decision based on that,” Waller said.

“Recent murder cases are getting DNA in the early stages. (We are) able to identify the offender at the early stages through DNA,” Waller added. “That’s made a big difference. Science and technology has developed and increased significantly. To a certain extent, these controversial cases are caught in a time warp.”

Extensive investigations led to “what appeared to be at the time very persuasive evidence.”

“My view is if there’s an issue, let’s test it,” Waller said. “I certainly think the last thing anybody wants to see happen is have the wrong person convicted. That’s the worst thing that can happen in the criminal justice system.”

Waller also said he knows that everyone who worked on the four cases mired in controversy acted in “good faith” and tried to make “the right decision” based on the evidence at the time.

Four also is significant number to his career because that’s the number of countywide councils Waller established dealing with domestic, juvenile, sexual assault and drugs. The councils have developed treatment, education and prevention programs in their areas.

He also noted that 16 of his assistant state’s attorneys have been elevated to judge.

Waller said he plans to take at least two months off after his last day.

“I’m going to continue on the Nicasa board. I’ve been on the board since 1990,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done. It’s a premiere (drug) treatment and prevention program. You can’t just arrest people and put them in jail. People aren’t necessarily bad.

“People make mistakes,” he added. “If you can turn their lives around, that’s what you ought to do.”

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