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Special panel to review cases

Lake County's first Citizens Advisory Board members (left right) Former News Sun Reporter Art PetersPresident  Soaring Eagle Publishing Company

Lake County's first Citizens Advisory Board members (left to right) Former News Sun Reporter Art Peterson, President of Soaring Eagle Publishing Company Elroy Reed, community activist Paula Carbillidom and Jesus Name Apostolic Church pastor John Caples Jr. at the courthouse in Waukegan on Thursday, February 21, 2013. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Wrongful Conviction CASEs

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 in 2012 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.

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 did not match Starks’ DNA. Sexual assault and aggravated battery charges against Starks were dropped.

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: April 24, 2013 2:24AM

In an attempt to prevent wrongful convictions, two special boards have been impaneled to help Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim review cases.

“I believe we are the only county in the country with a model like this,” Nerheim said of his new Case Review Board and Citizens Advisory Board.

Members of the Case Review Board were sworn in as special assistant state’s attorneys. They will operate independently of Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office. The six-member panel is made of lawyers and retired judges who will provide a fresh set of eyes as they review cases and examine the issue of wrongful convictions, Nerheim said. Their role is to advise Nerheim.

“The ultimate decision is mine. This is not an attempt to put the decision on anyone else,” Nerheim said.

In addition, the four-member Citizens Advisory Board will bring community perspective to the wrongful conviction issue. They will also act as a liaison between the public and the state’s attorney’s office, Nerheim said.

The proposed panels were part of Nerheim’s campaign for state’s attorney. He announced the panel members shortly after he was elected in November. Lake County Chief Judge Fred Foreman administered the oath of office Thursday to the community members, retired judges and lawyers who comprise the boards.

Citizen’s Advisory Board members include retired News-Sun reporter Art Peterson; community activist Paula Carbillido; Pastor John Caples Jr. of Jesus Name Apostolic Church in Waukegan; and Elroy Reed, founder and president of Soaring Eagle Publishing Co.

“I think it’s a real good move for both the community and the justice system to open the lines (of communication) that didn’t exist before,” Peterson said.

Case Review Panel members include retired DuPage County Judge Peter Dockery; Edwardsville civil attorney Nicholas Iavarone; Lake County civil attorney Ennedy Rivera; retired Lake County Judge Emilio Santi; Lake County civil attorney Robert Baizer; and Frank Zera, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney and Illinois assistant attorney general.

“I feel good about being part of the process. I hope there won’t be any wrongful convictions,” Baizer said.

Baizer, like all other board members, are volunteering their time. He said the publicity surrounding the wrongful conviction cases in Lake County was motivation to join the panel.

Nerheim said he has already given the Case Review Board five cases to examine, Nerheim said. Some defendants and their relatives wrote him about their cases, he said. Only the Case Review Board will review cases. That’s why they were sworn in as special assistant state’s attorneys, he said.

Both boards went to work after they were sworn in. They will meet monthly or as needed, Nerheim said.

“What the state’s attorney is doing is exciting. I think it’s a great step for Lake County,” said former 10th District Congressman Bob Dold, who attended the swearing-in ceremony at the Lake County Building.

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