Clean slate for Bennie Starks, man imprisoned 20 years for crime he didn't commit

January 7, 2013 3:14:38 PM PST
After spending more than 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Bennie Starks officially has a clean slate.

Starks was released from prison in 2006 after DNA evidence cleared him in a 1986 rape.

But, Monday morning, all of the charges related to the case were finally dismissed. The exonerated man's ordeal is finally a free man.

"I'm just overwhelmed right now. I don't have any words. I'm just overwhelmed with joy," said Starks.

After spending 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Starks left court Monday fully exonerated as Lake County officially dropped the case, clearing his name.

"It's finally over," said Starks. "It's been a long time."

Monday morning, a judge dismissed the case after newly elected Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim agreed to vacate the remaining charges, unlike his predecessor.

"Bennie is innocent, but because of a new, courageous prosecutor, a ray of sunlight has cracked through that cloud, and we're grateful to Mr. Nerheim," said Jed Stone, Starks' attorney.

Starks was found guilty of assaulting and raping a 69-year=-old Waukegan woman. He was sentenced to 60 years.

Starks was in prison from 1986 to 2006, but six years ago, an appellate court threw out the convictions when DNA testing excluded Starks as the woman's attacker.

The victim later died.

Prosecutors dropped the rape charge in May, but continued to pursue the battery charge until now.

Starks has been free on bond while the Innocence Project helped him clear his name. This is one of the group's oldest active cases.

"Bennie's case features a wrongful identification and also faulty forensics," said Innocence Project's Lauren Kaeseberg. "Misidentifications make up 75 percent of wrongful convictions."

After the ruling, Starks shared his vindication with supporters and friends.

"I'm glad it's over for him," said Starks' friend Wesley Simpson. "I saw a good smile. I hope I see some more."

And so does the now 53-year-old Starks, who says he is not bitter, just ready to truly enjoy his life.

"The sky's the limit, you know. Every day is a new day," said Starks.

The Lake County state's attorney says his decision not to pursue charges was not about the guilt or innocence of Bennie Starks, but the fact that he has served more time in prison than he could get in a future trial.

Starks says he plans to enjoy his grandchildren, but neither he nor his attorneys would say if they are planning to file a civil lawsuit against Lake County officials.