Prison door swings open; Man out on bail; rape conviction overturned Chicago Tribune
October 5, 2006 Thursday
October 5, 2006 Thursday
HEADLINE: Prison door swings open;
Man out on bail; rape conviction overturned
BYLINE: By Dave Wischnowsky, Tribune staff reporter.
Wearing olive cargo pants so new the creases still showed, Bennie Starks stepped outside
the Lake County Jail complex Wednesday afternoon, a free man for the first time in 20
"Everything looks so different," Starks, 47, said while surveying the rain-soaked
downtown streets of his native Waukegan. "Even the air smells different than it did in
Convicted in 1986 of sexually assaulting a 69-year-old Waukegan woman, Starks was
released Wednesday on $100,000 bail after DNA tests showed that a crime- lab analyst
presented false scientific evidence at his trial.
Sentenced to 60 years in prison for a crime that technology now says he did not commit,
Starks always maintained his innocence.
"I knew this day would come," he said. "I just didn't think it would take this long."
Starks' saga isn't over. The Lake County state's attorney's office has appealed the Illinois
Appellate Court's decision in March to overturn his convictions on two counts of sexual
assault. A ruling on the appeal is expected by the end of the year.
Starks also was convicted in 1986 of battery against the woman, who has since died, and
was sentenced to 5 years in prison for that crime.
That conviction has not been overturned, as Lake County prosecutor Michael Mer mel
"He's still guilty," Mermel said. "[Starks' lawyers] are going to pretend that he's an
innocent man freed by the Appellate Court, but that's not the case. That's not true."
Starks' attorneys, Vanessa Potkin of the New York-based Innocence Project and Jed
Stone of Waukegan, plan to challenge his battery conviction Oct. 19 in Circuit Court.
At his trial 20 years ago, the woman identified Starks as her attacker, alleging that he
pulled her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. A Gurnee dentist said he matched
Starks' teeth to a bite mark on the woman, and Starks' jacket was found near the scene of
A dry-cleaning receipt found in the coat's pocket led police to Starks, but he said he had
spent the evening in a nearby tavern and had been robbed of his money and coat on the
Starks' attorneys have questioned the bite mark, saying the methodology used to study it
in 1986 was faulty.
In 2002, after DNA tests of the woman's underwear isolated a male profile that was not
Starks', his lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied.
Two years ago, however, a swab taken in 1986 from the woman's body but thought to
have been lost was discovered in the Northern Illinois Crime Lab. After more than a year
of legal wrangling, it was tested and the DNA did not match Starks'.
The woman testified in court that she had not engaged in consensual sex in the two weeks
before the attack, but Mermel has said he now believes differently.
"She testified to a bunch of different things," he told the Tribune in December when the
swab's DNA results were released. "It doesn't matter, because the rest of the evidence is
Starks and his lawyers dispute Mermel's opinion.
"I think they knew it was faulty forensic testing but went along with it anyway," he said.
On Wednesday, Starks--whose bail was funded by an anonymous donor who contacted
the Innocence Project last week--said puzzling over the details of his case is for another
"Today, I just want to enjoy the fresh air and even the rain," he said, smiling after a four-
hour van ride to Waukegan from Illinois River Correctional Center in Downstate Canton.
"I just want to see everyone I can. Cousins, aunts, grandmothers, everyone."
Starks' sister, Kim, met him Wednesday at Lake County Jail, their first face-to- face
encounter in a decade.
"God has loosened the chains and set the captive free," she said in tears while bear-
hugging her older brother. "It was tough for the family, but we made it through on the
strength of God."
On Wednesday afternoon, Starks traveled to his aunt's home in Chicago, where he plans
to live, and had dinner with his mother and other relatives.
He plans to reconnect with his 27- year-old daughter, Tiffany, who lives in Florida, and
hopes to contact his son, Brandon, 20, who was an infant when Starks last saw him.
Starks said there was a time when he was angry about his fate, but since accepting the
Lord eight years ago, that has passed.
Stone, his attorney, encouraged that mind-set Wednesday.
"If you're comfortable with yourself, there's no reason to feel anything but compassion,"
Stone said. "A series of people made a series of mistakes that stole a portion of this man's
"But there's no reason to be angry. You just regroup and help Bennie get his life back."
With that remark, Starks did a bunny hop outside the jail.
"Amen," he said.
Sept. 25, 1986: Bennie Starks is convicted of sexually assaulting a 69-year-old Waukegan
March 15, 2002: Lawyers for the Innocence Project ask for a new trial because DNA tests
failed to link the defendant to the crime.
May 18, 2004: Starks' lawyers again ask for a new trial after saying they have uncovered
evidence that a crime- lab analyst testified falsely at his trial.
March, 23, 2006: The Illinois Appellate Court orders a new trial for Starks, ruling that
DNA tests have shown a crime-lab analyst presented false scientific evidence at his trial.
Sept. 21, 2006: The Illinois Appellate Court orders Starks released on $100,000 bail,
pending a retrial.
GRAPHIC: PHOTO (color): Kim Starks walks with her brother Bennie after he was
released Wednesday from the Lake County Jail in Waukegan. Tribune photo by Jim
LOAD-DATE: October 5, 2006