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posted: 5/21/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Road to trust rough for Lake County law enforcement

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  • Bennie Starks was released from prison after it was learned he was wrongfully convicted of rape with help from the Innocence Project.

    Bennie Starks was released from prison after it was learned he was wrongfully convicted of rape with help from the Innocence Project.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It happened yet again.

Last week, prosecutors in the Lake County State's Attorney's Office dropped sexual assault charges against a man who has been in prison for two decades. Bennie Starks, 52, of Chicago was exonerated by DNA evidence.

He becomes the fourth such wrongfully prosecuted man exonerated by DNA evidence in Lake County. Before him, Jerry Hobbs III, James Edwards and Juan Rivera all were exonerated of murder charges. Hobbs spent five years in jail he never will get back. Rivera was convicted three times and released after nearly 20 years. Edwards was imprisoned for nearly 15 years.

The damage done to those men and their families never can be repaired. The damage done to the trust in the law enforcement system in Lake County, will be very difficult to repair.

Even if everyone involved in Lake County, from police to prosecutors to judges, believed they were doing the right thing, the damage has been done. It's tough to trust that there aren't more innocent men and women wasting away wrongly behind bars. It's hard to trust that the next person charged is the right one. It's hard to fathom not just what all this cost those innocent men, but what all of this literally will cost taxpayers as lawsuits against law enforcement for these wrongful convictions proceed.

Even as a new lawyer heads up the Lake County State's Attorney's criminal division, it's hard to trust that prosecutors are acting in the public's best interest and putting justice ahead of political considerations when they drop the charges against Starks in the morning and then announce charges against two new suspects in two of the other cases in the afternoon.

Were authorities hoping the new charges would overshadow the mistake of those dropped? It's tough to conclude otherwise.

Perception here is reality. And the reality is that Lake County law enforcement has a long way to go to win back a modicum of public trust.

Prosecutors, police and judges all must consider doing all they can think of and everything in their power to try to make sure the system is just and that only criminals are being convicted.

Lake County residents have a special obligation now to carefully consider whether to elect Republican Mike Nerheim or Democrat Chris Kennedy to succeed retiring State's Attorney Michael Waller.

Lawyers and other experts say other attempts to stop wrongful convictions could include allowing expert testimony about the likelihood of false confessions and more training for prosecutors. Perhaps it's time to allow videotaped confessions to air in their entirety at trial? Independent conviction and evidence review teams certainly are worth pursuing, as is happening in the Lake County State's Attorney's Office now.

Yes, it is four men out of hundreds of thousands prosecuted. Four people wrongfully convicted are four too many. The plain truth is, trust is a very tough thing to regain.

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