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updated: 3/14/2014 8:53 AM

Protesters object to award for former Lake County prosecutor

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Protesters objected to an award given to former Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, saying the honor was "egregious" after four wrongful conviction cases his office handled.

A group of protesters said they held a 20-minute news conference Wednesday outside Waukegan City Hall chambers, where Waller received the Lake County Bar Association's Robert Jackson Award.

"To honor him for his injustice, his cruelty, is so egregious," Ingleside resident Denise Rotheimer said Thursday. She was one of the protest organizers.

Lake County Bar Association President Steven McCollum acknowledged the gathering outside the city hall chambers.

"Apparently there was some people there," McCollum said. "I was in the bar association meeting. I didn't really participate in any controversy."

The bar association picked Waller for the award based on the programs he started to help victims during his career, McCollum said.

"I gave Mr. Waller that award based on the many, many years where he handled tens of thousands of cases and helped innumerable victims of crime during that time," McCollum said. "That's why he was given the award."

Protest organizers said Thursday they hosted the news conference to speak out about the bar association's honor for Waller, who retired in 2012 under the cloud of four high-profile cases that have been overturned since 2010 because of evidence of wrongful convictions.

They involved convictions in Bennie Stark's Waukegan rape case and murder cases involving Juan Rivera, Jerry Hobbs and James Edwards. All imploded because of DNA evidence.

Edwards is the only one still behind bars because he faces an unrelated armed robbery charge in Illinois and a murder charge in Ohio.

Critics have charged the fallout has been significant, including innocent men who spent decades behind bars and lawsuits leading to potentially multimillion-dollar payouts.

Rivera and Starks were among the protesters at Wednesday's event.

Rotheimer said Waller's honor adds insult to the extent it brings back the "all negative trauma" those cases caused.

When Waller retired in 2012, he told the Daily Herald while advancements in DNA evidence testing led to all four cases being overturned, he said his office did the right thing at the time with the evidence they had.

"I don't think we could have handled it differently," he said. "I never prosecuted anyone unless I believed they were guilty."

• Lake County Editor/Manager Pete Nenni contributed to this report

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