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Article updated: 12/6/2012 4:01 PM

Lake County prosecutors dropping battery charge in wrongful rape conviction

Man was wrongfully convicted of rape, recently freed from prison

Bennie Starks

Bennie Starks

 
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Lake County prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of an aggravated battery charge against a man who was wrongfully convicted of sexually attacking a woman and recently released from prison.

In May, prosecutors formally dropped the sexual abuse charges that sent Bennie Starks to prison for 20 years. However, Starks, now 52 and living in Chicago, also was convicted of aggravated battery in the case and that charge had remained.

But on Wednesday, Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim announced prosecutors will go before Circuit Judge John Phillips to request dismissal of the aggravated battery. The hearing is set for Friday morning.

One of Starks' attorneys, Jed Stone, praised Nerheim for making the decision regarding the aggravated battery in his first week in office. Stone said Nerheim "has breathed fresh air into a septic system."

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 Starks was not the source of the semen found in her 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.

Shortly after he was sworn is as state's attorney Monday, Nerheim said, he started consulting about the Starks case with Chief Deputy State's Attorney Jeff Pavletic. He said he also reviewed physical evidence, read appellate court opinions, checked various facts and talked to the lead investigator in the case before deciding the aggravated battery against Starks should be dismissed.

Nerheim said his decision doesn't reflect any opinion on whether Starks is guilty or not guilty of aggravated battery. He said he took into consideration the 20 years Starks spent behind bars.

"It's been a case that's been a subject of a lot of concern, and a lot of people have asked about the case," Nerheim said.

Starks' was one of four 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 former Zion resident Jerry Hobbs and Juan Rivera, previously from Waukegan, and James Edwards also have imploded in the last two years because of DNA evidence. Edwards remains incarcerated on an unrelated armed robbery charge in Illinois but also faces a murder charge in another case in Ohio.

Stone said all of Starks' lawyers have been waiting a long time for him to be cleared in entirety.

"I was very fortunate to represent Bennie Starks and his struggle for justice," Stone said.

Drop: New state's attorney moved swiftly

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