Finally, Bennie Starks is a free man.
The remaining aggravated battery charge against Starks, stemming from his wrongful conviction in a 1986 rape case, was dropped Monday during a hearing in front of Lake County Judge John Philips. It came a month after the first attempt to do so was delayed by a paperwork snafu.
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"It's, like, a huge relief," Starks, now 52, said after the hearing. "I can't even explain the feeling I have right now."
Thus ends Starks' long legal saga, in which the Chicago man spent 20 years in prison. Starks was found guilty and was in prison until 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 convictions after DNA evidence cleared the former Waukegan man.
Rape charges against him were dropped in 2011, but prosecutors refused to drop the aggravated battery charge in the case.
Newly elected Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim decided last month to dismiss the charge after reviewing evidence and appellate court decisions.
Nerheim said his decision didn't reflect any opinion on whether Starks is guilty or not of aggravated battery. He added he took into consideration the 20 years Starks spent behind bars before dropping the charge.
Nerheim did not appear in court Monday, but defense attorney Jed Stone of Waukegan called him a "bright light of sunshine" after the hearing.
"Today, a ray of sunlight shined through the clouds that have hung over this building for the last two-and-a-half decades," Stone said. "I don't understand why it's so difficult for prosecutors to admit their mistakes. I admit my mistakes and apologize to my wife every day for them."
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 involving Juan Rivera, Jerry Hobbs and James Edwards also have imploded in the last two years because of DNA evidence.
Edwards is the only one of the three still behind bars because he faces an unrelated armed robbery charge in Illinois and a murder charge in Ohio.
Rivera and Hobbs have filed civil lawsuits against the county and former Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller because of the wrongful convictions.
Starks would not say Monday whether he also intends to file a civil suit for being wrongfully incarcerated.
"I knew he didn't do it from the beginning," said Wesley Simpson, a 40-year friend of Starks who attended Monday's hearing. "I'm glad to see him finally acquitted."