Rape charges dropped against man freed by DNA evidence

May 15, 2012 3:22:07 PM PDT
Bennie Starks is now a free man.

Prosecutors in Lake County have dropped rape charges against Starks after he spent 20 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

This is the latest of a series of cases in Lake County where DNA evidence has cleared someone who was wrongly convicted.

Starks was convicted of raping a Waukegan woman in 1986. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison. But, in 2006, an appeals court ordered a new trial because of DNA testing. Tuesday, prosecutors decided they will not retry him.

When Bennie Starks walked out of the Lake County Courthouse Tuesday, a huge weight was finally lifted from his shoulders.

"I'm going to enjoy this day," said Starks. "And the next day, and the next day."

It has been 26 years since Starks was convicted of sexually assaulting a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine.

Starks spent two decades in prison, and though DNA evidence excluded him as the rapist in 2001, it took another five years of testing and retesting until he was released from prison.

Lake County prosecutors threatened to retry him, until Tuesday, when those charges were finally dismissed.

"We feel very pleased with what happened today, but it's what should have happened many years ago," said the Innocence Project's Lauren Kaeseberg.

Starks' is one of four recent Lake County cases where, even though DNA evidence pointed to someone else, prosecutors insisted on the defendant's guilt. Back in December, Juan Rivera was released from prison after an appellate court reversed his conviction in a 1992 murder case.

Tuesday, the state's attorney's office declined to comment.

"I don't think it's unique to Lake County," said Starks' attorney Jed Stone. "I think it's a nationwide problem of deaf ears and blind eyes toward scientific evidence of innocence, a nationwide problem of corrupt police officers, state's attorneys and judges who turn their eyes away from that corruption."

Starks ordeal isn't over just yet. He was also convicted of battery in the 1986 case. It is now up to an appellate court whether to vacate that conviction.

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