On Januuary 19, 1986, a 69-year-old Hispanic woman went to the police department in Waukegan, Illinois, and reported that on the previous evening she was attacked as she was walking on the street.
The woman told police that a man dragged her by her feet down into a ravine, where he punched her repeatedly in the face, then took off her underwear and raped her. She said that during the attack, the man bit her on the shoulder and that she ripped off his watch.
A police officer was sent to the scene of the attack, where he found a pair of women’s underwear, a black trench coat, gloves, a scarf, a watch and a watchband. Inside the sleeve of the coat was a laundry tag from a local drycleaners. The officer took the coat to Sinclair Cleaners in Waukegan and the owner identified the person who brought in the coat as Bennie Starks.
Police then prepared a photo lineup for the victim and included a photograph of Starks, who is African American. The woman picked him out as her attacker.
Starks was arrested and charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, attempted aggravated criminal assault, aggravated battery and unlawful restraint.
At trial before a jury in Lake County Circuit Court, the victim described the attack as she had originally told police.
Sharon Thomas-Boyd, a forensic serologist, testified that her tests revealed the presence of semen on the underwear and that semen was present on a vaginal swab. She said she could not exclude Starks as a source of the semen.
A forensic odontologist, Russell Schneider, testified that after examining the bite mark on the victim’s shoulder and comparing it to Starks' teeth, he concluded that Starks bit the woman.
A police officer testified that after Starks was brought in for questioning, he said that on the night of the crime, he had been robbed as he walked home from the Genesee Inn. Two men took his coat, gloves, wristwatch and $80, Starks said. Starks identified the coat found at the scene as his and said he had not reported the robbery to police.
The jury also heard from an employee from the Illinois Department of Public Aid, who said she spoke with the victim after the attack. The worker said the victim admitted she had falsely accused Starks of the rape because she had been attacked by a man who was jealous of her relationship with another man.
Starks was convicted on all counts. The unlawful restraint conviction was vacated by the trial judge and Starks was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
After losing his appeal, Starks reached out to the Innocence Project in New York and DNA testing was performed on the underwear. In 2002, a motion for a new trial was filed after the DNA tests isolated a male profile that was not Starks.
The motion was denied after Lake County prosecutor Michael Mermel argued that the unknown male DNA could have been present from a previous consensual sexual encounter.
The vaginal swab was not tested for DNA because, according to Mermel, it no longer existed.
But then, in 2004, the swab was located at the Northern Illinois Crime Lab. Initially, a request to test the swab was denied by Lake County Circuit Judge Christopher Starck.
While that legal battle continued, defense lawyers discovered the laboratory reports prepared by Thomas-Boyd, the serologist who testified at Starks’ trial. The reports showed that Starks had been excluded by the serology tests.
The lab reports showed that the victim had blood type O and was a non-secretor, which meant her blood type could only be determined from her blood and not from vaginal secretions. The lab report stated that Starks had blood type B and was a secretor, which meant his blood type would be evident in all his body fluids, including semen. The report said only evidence of blood type O was found on the underwear and vaginal swab. The victim could not have been the source of that type O substance because she was a non-secretor, and it could not have been Starks because he is a type B.
DNA tests were then performed on the swab and again Starks was excluded.
In December, 2005, a motion was filed to supplement the record in the Illinois Court of Appeals, where the appeal of the denial of the new trial motion was about to be heard.
On March 23, 2006, the appellate court set aside Starks’ conviction and sentence, citing the DNA test results, the impeachment of the victim by the public aid worker, and the false testimony by crime lab serologist Sharon Thomas-Boyd, who told the jury she could not exclude Starks as the rapist when her own serology tests had done just that.
Starks, then 47, was released on bond on October 4, 2006 after serving more than 20 years of his sentence.
The case stalled amidst legal arguments over what evidence could be admitted in the retrial. After the victim died in January 2011, a Lake County judge ruled that prosecutors could not use her past testimony because the original cross-examination at Starks’ first trial was inadequate. Prosecutors appealed the ruling and in February 2012, the decision was upheld.
Prosecutors dismissed the rape case in May 2012, but continued to defend Starks’ conviction for battering the same woman during the same incident.
In the fall of 2012, Mike Nerheim was elected state's attorney. He established a legal panel to review cases of possible wrongful conviction. One of his first steps was to order the assault charge against Starks dismissed and it was, on January 7, 2013.
"The image of this office has been tarnished, and one of my top priorities is to restore that," Nerheim said.
In September 2013, Starks was granted a certificate of innocence and later was awarded $213,600 in state compensation. In 2015, he settled a federal civil rights lawsuit for $990,000.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.