Three days into his first term as Lake County state's attorney, Mike Nerheim announced he will drop a case from 1986 that his predecessor steadfastly pursued despite DNA evidence indicating the suspect's innocence.
Bennie Starks spent 20 years in prison for raping and battering a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan before DNA pointed away from him and he was freed on bond in 2006 pending a new trial on the rape charge. Prosecutors dropped the rape case in May but continued to defend his conviction for battering the same woman during the same incident.
Nerheim said Wednesday afternoon that he has agreed to vacate the aggravated battery charge, reversing the course of former Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, who retired last week. A hearing has been scheduled for Friday to end the case officially, one of Starks' lawyers said.
Starks, 53, said Wednesday that he was feeling "so, so fine" a few minutes after he received the news at a relative's home in Wisconsin. He said he planned to celebrate the impending end of his 26-year odyssey with dinner from Jimmy John's and a bottle of chardonnay.
Though he has been free for six years, Starks said living with the cases hanging over his head has been as stressful as prison. He faced no prospect of returning to prison for battery, given how long he already served, but he wanted to see both felony convictions undone.
"It's been 26 years of hell," he said. "The emotional strain and the distress and the pain that I have … today, it was kind of just lifted."
During his first three days in office, Nerheim reviewed the case file and talked with prosecutors and investigators who worked the case, he said. Nerheim did not offer an opinion on whether Starks actually attacked the woman, but he noted that the victim has died, court rulings have gone against the prosecution and evidence has been called into question.
"I just don't believe it's in the interests of justice to pursue this any further," he said.
Starks' is one of four violent felony cases that crumbled under the weight of DNA evidence toward the end of Waller's 22 years as state's attorney. The cases were distinguished by the fact that prosecutors continued to insist on each suspect's guilt after blood or semen evidence suggested his innocence.
Waller could not be reached for comment.
Nerheim's decision appears to end a case with a byzantine history reaching back to 1986.
The victim identified Starks as her attacker, authorities said his jacket was found near the scene and bite marks on the woman matched him. His attorneys have called the dental evidence into question, and he said his jacket had been stolen from him.
He was freed six years ago after DNA evidence indicated the woman had had sex with someone else and appeals judges ordered a new trial. Prosecutors continued to pursue the rape charge against Starks, arguing the woman must have had consensual sex with another man, although she said the opposite at trial.
After higher court losses, prosecutors dropped the rape charge in May, but the battery charge survived because it had been split from the rape case by a prior court ruling. In June, the appeals court ordered Lake County to hold a hearing at which Starks' lawyers could argue for a new trial for battery. Lake County called on appeals judges to reconsider and, when they declined, asked the state Supreme Court for review.
The Illinois Supreme Court declined to do so Nov. 28, one week before Nerheim said he would end Starks' prosecution.
Starks' attorney Jed Stone said he was "overwhelmed with joy" to see the case end.
"All the good lawyering in the world and even the best of clients can't get justice done in an environment that refuses to acknowledge the just and fair result," he said. "(Nerheim) is doing the right, just, honorable thing, and I commend him on it."