An attempt by Lake County prosecutors to officially drop aggravated battery charges against a man who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexually attacking a woman was held up in court Friday.
Prosecutors went before Lake County Judge Victoria Rossetti to end legal proceedings against Bennie Starks, 52, of Chicago, but a paperwork snafu determined prosecutors don't have jurisdiction to release the case at this time.
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The state appellate court retains jurisdiction, said Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, who directed appellate court lawyers to quickly forward the paperwork to Lake County.
"We tried to dismiss it, but the Lake County courts couldn't hear it because it technically still remains in front of the appellate court," Nerheim said. "But, the decision will not change. When it comes back here, we will drop the charges."
Starks, who appeared in court expecting to have those charges dropped, said he will just have to wait another five weeks to put the entire matter behind him.
"It's bittersweet today," he said. "But I am remaining positive. The main thing is that charges will be dropped."
Nerheim decided this week to dismiss the remaining charge against after consulting with Chief Deputy State's Attorney Jeff Pavletic. Nerheim was elected Nov. 6 and was sworn into office Monday.
Nerheim said he reviewed physical evidence, read appellate court opinions, checked various facts and talked to the lead investigators in the case before deciding the charge should be dismissed.
"It's a disservice of justice to continue this case," he said.
Nerheim added his decision doesn't reflect any opinion on whether Starks is guilty or not of aggravated battery. He said took into consideration the 20 years Starks spent behind bars.
Starks was in prison between 1986 and 2006 for the rape of a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine. He was initially 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.
DNA testing performed after the first trial established Starks was not the source of semen found in the victim's body or in her underwear. The victim has died, and a judge ruled in 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony in a new trial. Rape charges against Starks were dropped in May, but the aggravated battery charge remained in place.
Defense attorney Jed Stone of Waukegan said he is proud of Nerheim for dropping the case.
"Today, Mike Nerheim has shined a bright light of sunshine and provided a great service to all of us who work in this building," Stone said. "(Lake County) has been the epicenter of wrongful convictions in the nation. But Nerheim has showed that he is someone who cares about justice."
Starks' case was one of four in which Lake County prosecutors insisted on the suspect's guilt even after DNA suggested someone else was responsible for the crime.
Murder cases against Juan Rivera, Jerry Hobbs and James Edwards also have imploded in the last two years because of DNA evidence.
Rivera was on hand in Waukegan in support of Starks, but refused to speak about his wrongful conviction case.
Edwards is the only one to remain behind bars after being wrongfully convicted. But, that's because of an unrelated armed robbery charge in Illinois and a murder charge in Ohio.