In the years since DNA pointed toward Bennie Starks’ innocence in the rape and beating of a woman in Waukegan, Lake County authorities have worked persistently but unsuccessfully to continue holding him accountable for the attack.Starks had been in prison for 20 years in 2006 when appeals judges granted him a new trial and set him free on bond, citing semen evidence that didn’t match him. The following years brought a series of legal victories for Starks, and prosecutors eventually dropped all the charges. In 2013, a Lake County judge issued him a certificate declaring his innocence. Now attorneys for the Waukegan police and others say the certificate should be taken back.
The unusual effort to have Starks’ certificate of innocence vacated is being led by lawyers for the police and forensic experts he is suing. The petition filed Dec. 8 acknowledges the certificate could help Starks, 55, win a substantial sum in the lawsuit. The petitioners argue the victim made up the rape allegation but accurately accused Starks of battering her, a theory that differs from authorities’ past accounts.One of Starks’ lawyers, Lauren Kaeseberg, called the effort “outrageous” and said Starks’ attorneys would fight it.
“What these parties have done in Bennie’s case sends a message to every exonerated person in this state. … ‘Watch out, because your fight may never be over,'” she said. Starks could not be reached for comment. An attorney for one party seeking the certificate revocation declined to comment, calling the petition “self-explanatory,” while lawyers for other parties could not be reached. A hearing is scheduled on the matter Feb. 18.
Starks was convicted in 1986 of aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery, among other charges, after the victim, a woman in her late 60s, identified him as the man who dragged her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. He was serving a 60-year prison sentence when DNA first suggested his innocence in the early 2000s, court records show. Prosecutors, however, argued that the semen might have come from consensual sex with a different man, even though the victim testified she hadn’t had sex for weeks before the attack. Starks’ was one of four cases in which prosecutors under former Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller argued that seemingly exculpatory forensic evidence didn’t clear an inmate of a violent crime. All four cases fell apart during the final years of Waller’s 22-year reign, but only after Starks and the other three men had spent a combined total of 60 years behind bars.
After Starks’ release, court defeats prevented prosecutors from using the earlier testimony of the victim, who died several years ago, and they dropped the sexual assault charges in 2012. But the battery conviction stood, and Waller’s office defended it from attacks by Starks’ lawyers. Days after he took office in 2012, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim agreed to dismiss the battery charge. Last year, Lake County Judge George Bridges — a former chief of the Waukegan police — signed Starks’ certificate of innocence.
The certificate should not have been granted, according to lawyers for Waukegan police and forensic scientists who testified against Starks. The lawyers argue first that Starks didn’t meet the procedural requirements for a certificate because of the way his battery conviction was undone.But the attorneys also argue that the facts show he did batter the woman. They note that Starks’ coat and other belongings were found near the scene, though Starks has said he was robbed of the items the night the woman was attacked. The petition points to parts of the victim’s statements that matched where Starks lived and items he was said to have carried that night.
The victim first told police she wasn’t raped, though she later said she was, the petition notes. The petition posits that the woman could have had sex with another man and then, in hopes that Starks would receive harsh punishment, claimed falsely that he raped her. A woman testified at Starks’ trial that the victim had told her she made up the rape story, contradicting the victim’s trial testimony, the petition says.The lawyers also wrote that Starks, in a recent deposition, gave an account of the day of the crime containing details that differed with his past statements.”Clearly, the vast majority of the evidence still indicates that Starks committed the attack,” the lawyers wrote.The petition tortures the facts and logic, Kaeseberg said. Authorities contended that the woman was raped and battered by one person, and there’s no credible evidence that’s not true, she said. Witness identifications have been proved wrong in many cases, and Kaeseberg called it “laughable” that the attorneys are trying to discredit the deceased victim’s account of being raped.
It is not significant that Starks’ recollection of certain details has changed, given that he was asked in his deposition to recount events that took place nearly 30 years ago, Kaeseberg said. The details may have changed, she said, because Starks was trying to recall them truthfully, rather than putting forward a carefully rehearsed story.
“The truth is that Bennie Starks is innocent,” she said. “Always has been; always will be.”
Kaeseberg also noted that Nerheim did not object to Starks’ petition for the certificate of innocence. His office has taken no position on the attempt to vacate the certificate.