Reporting Nancy Harty
CHICAGO (CBS) — Lake County prosecutors have finally cleared the name of a man who served 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
WBBM Newsradio’s Nancy Harty reports, in May, Bennie Starks was cleared of the rape of a Waukegan woman, but prosecutors had fought to keep his aggravated battery conviction in place until last month, when they agreed to vacate that conviction.
But one more small snafu in court on Monday delayed that official exoneration for a little while longer, due to a mixup about the wording on a court order.
Starks, 53, eventually left court Monday a free man, and with the exoneration he’d been seeking for 26 years – something that had him a bit stunned.
“I don’t even have any words. I’m overwhelmed with joy,” he said.
The Innocence Project helped him gain his freedom after DNA evidence pointed to another man.
Starks served 20 years in prison for the 1986 rape of a 69-year-old woman. He had been free on bond since 2006, while an appeal of his conviction was pending, after DNA evidence pointed to a different suspect.
The Innocence Project began fighting for Starks in 1996 and his remains one of the group’s oldest active cases.
The victim in the case has since died.
A problem with paperwork led to the delay in dropping the battery charge.
Starks’ attorney, Jed Stone, said Lake County has been under a dark cloud of wrongful convictions, and this would not have been possible under former Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller.
“Regardless of who the prosecutor was, Bennie is innocent, but because of a new courageous prosecutor, a ray of sunlight has cracked through that cloud,” Stone said.
In a previous statement, newly elected Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, said dismissing the charges against Starks was not a reflection of whether he’s guilty, and that – among other things – he has served longer in prison that he would get at a future trial.
Waller had fought to preserve Starks’ aggravated battery conviction, even after the rape charge was dropped, but Nerheim agreed to vacate the aggravated battery conviction after being elected in November.
Now that his name has been completely cleared, and a judge has released him from the conditions of his 2006 bond, Starks said he’s looking forward to the future.
“I mean, the sky’s the limit. … Every day is a new day,” he said. “Just getting back to just normal things, you know? … Not having to come back here anymore.”
Starks does not have a job, but he hopes his now-clean record will make it easier to get one. For years, he worked a meat-processing job in prison.
Longtime friend Wesley Simpson of Waukegan said he never believed Starks committed any crimes.
“I knew he didn’t do it from the beginning. He’s not that kind of guy — never has been,” Simpson told reporters.