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updated: 5/15/2012 7:10 PM

Rape charges dropped against Starks, decades after conviction in Lake County

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  • Bennie Starks

      Bennie Starks

 
 

Sexual assault charges that sent a man to prison for 20 years were formally dropped Tuesday morning by the Lake County state's attorney's office.

Bennie Starks, 52, now of Chicago, is among a group of defendants in high-profile Lake County cases to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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After the hearing at the Waukegan courthouse, Starks told the Daily Herald he and his family and friends planned to celebrate the state's attorney's decision not to retry him.

"Everything is good right now," Starks said. "I'm just going to enjoy this."

State's Attorney Michael Waller could not be reached for comment; neither could Assistant State's Attorney Jim Newman, who represented the office in Judge John T. Phillips' courtroom Tuesday.

Starks spent 20 years in prison for the Jan. 18, 1986, rape of a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine.

He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, but a 2006 appellate court decision threw out the sex crime convictions because defense attorneys were barred from questioning the woman about her history of sexual contact before the attack.

The woman's sexual activity around the time of the attack became an issue after DNA testing performed after the first trial established that Starks was not the source of the semen found in the woman's body or in her underwear.

The victim in the case has died, and Phillips ruled in 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony in a new trial.

It is one of three other recent Lake County cases in which prosecutors insisted on the suspect's guilt even after DNA suggested someone else was responsible for the crime.

Lake County murder cases against Zion resident Jerry Hobbs and Juan Rivera, formerly of Waukegan, also have imploded recently because of DNA evidence.

Starks also was convicted of battery in the attack, and he and his attorneys hope that charge will be tossed, too.

"The fight isn't completely over, and he's focused on continuing to ensure he can clear himself on the battery charges," said Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the New York-based Innocence Project, which has helped represent Starks and other convicts who've claimed they were wrongly accused.

The Innocence Project has represented Starks for 16 years, making his case one of the group's oldest, Potkin said.

The felony battery conviction is in the hands of an Illinois appellate court.

"I feel confident that the appellate court will do what they're supposed to do," Starks said.

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