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Ronnie Starks


Chicago Lawyer summed up the Ronnie L. Starks case: “They drive a hard bargain in Lake County, Illinois. They told Ronnie L. Starks he could go free if he passed a lie test. He passed the test. He got eleven years.”
 
Ronnie Starks, a 27-year-old Lake County resident with a record for burglary, was arrested on January 20, 1982, in East Bernstadt, Kentucky, where he was visiting his mother. He was charged with the armed robbery five days earlier of the Gurnee branch of Libertyville Savings and Loan Association. The basis for the arrest was an identification made by two victim tellers from a police photograph shortly after the crime. Starks waived extradition and was returned to Lake County, where the tellers, Jalena Gutman and Donna Vasey, identified him in a live lineup on March 10, 1982.
 
The prosecution case was not strong. Starks did not match a description Gutman and Vasey had initially provided and credible witnesses placed him in East Bernstadt, 480 miles from Gurnee, at the time of the crime. It likely was these weaknesses that prompted Assistant Lake County State’s Attorney John Scully to make an unusual offer to Starks through his public defender, Randall Stewart — that if Starks took and passed a polygraph test, the charge would be dismissed. Starks agreed.
 
On March 30, Libertyville Police Lieutenant Danny McCormick administered the test and concluded that Starks was truthful in denying the crime. Shortly thereafter, however, Scully advised Stewart that the agreement would not be honored — due to pressure from Libertyville Savings and Loan executives and others, dismissal of the charges simply was no longer a tenable option.
 
Starks went on trial on June 29 before a Lake County Circuit Court Judge Harry D. Strouse, Jr. and a jury. The prosecution case in chief rested solely on the testimony of tellers, who identified Starks in the courtroom. On cross-examination, Stewart elicited that the witnesses initially had described the robber as six feet tall, weighing 185 pounds, and having green or gray eyes. Stewart, however, did not establish for the record that Starks stood only five-eight, weighed 154 pounds, and had blue eyes. Stewart relied entirely on an alibi defense — four witnesses who testified that Starks had been in Kentucky continuously from Christmas Eve 1981 until his arrest on January 20 and thus could not have committed a crime in Gurnee on January 15.
 
In rebuttal, the prosecution called Diane Gatham, who had attended high school with Starks and had known him for more than a decade. She testified that she had seen Starks at a filling station in Lake County during the period in question with a man named Bill Dotson. Stewart did not call Dotson, who would have testified that the man Gatham had seen was a friend of his visiting from Texas who bore a resemblance to Starks. Among other omissions, Stewart did nothing when one of the alibi witnesses — Starks’s mother — blurted out on direct examination that her son had been arrested on January 20 not only for the Gurnee robbery but also for a January 8 bank robbery in neighboring McHenry County. In fact, the McHenry County charge had been dropped after another man confessed to that crime.
 
Without hearing about the prosecution’s reneged polygraph promise, the jury quickly found Starks guilty. Shortly thereafter, members of the Starks family retained Robert L. Hauser, a well-known Lake County defense lawyer, to redress what they saw as an obvious injustice. Hauser filed a post-trial motion seeking to enforce the polygraph agreement. The issue was whether the agreement entered into by the prosecution was binding.
 
Strouse, either missing or ignoring the issue at hand, denied the motion on the irrelevant ground that polygraph results were inadmissible in Illinois courts.
 
On December 12, 1983, the Illinois Appellate Court set Strouse straight in no uncertain terms — but affirmed the conviction anyway. While noting that Strouse “may have misapprehended the thrust of counsel’s argument and, therefore, did not fully consider whether the defendant was entitled to relief,” the appellate court found the lower court record “not complete enough to allow the conclusion that there was, in fact, an agreement or, if there was, what its terms were.”
 
In denying relief on that ground, the Appellate Court ignored two obvious points. First, the prosecution had not denied that the agreement existed either at the post-trial hearing or in its appellate pleadings. Second, after the trial, Stewart had been hired by the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office. Although he had described the agreement to Hauser, Stewart would not sign an affidavit drafted by Hauser. Deputy State’s Attorney Raymond McKoski wrote Hauser a letter stating that the office had forbidden Stewart to sign it. By not denying that there had been an agreement, McKoski’s letter seemed to be yet another tacit acknowledgement that there had been an agreement.
 
Hauser appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which, on April 19, 1985, reversed the Appellate Court. “The prosecution must honor the terms of agreements it makes with defendants,” said the high court. “To dispute the validity of this precept would surely result in the total nullification of the bargaining system between the prosecution and the defense.” As obvious as it seemed at this point that there had been an agreement, however, the Supreme Court did not say that. Rather it remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing on the question, directing that the charge be dismissed if the judge found that the agreement existed.
 
Because Strouse was no longer on the bench, the case was assigned to Judge Bernard E. Drew, Jr. At the evidentiary hearing that the Supreme Court had ordered, Scully testified that there never had been agreement between the State’s Attorney's Office and Starks. Judge Drew did not believe him, and on July 25, 1985, made a factual finding that there had in fact been an agreement. As directed by the Supreme Court, Drew dismissed the charges, thus exonerating Starks of the crime he insisted from the beginning he did not commit.
 
— Researched by Rob Warden
State:IL
County:Lake
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1982
Exonerated:1985
Sentence:11 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense