DNA tests help win retrial
'86 rape conviction was `manifest error,' Appellate Court rules
By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter
March 24, 2006
The Illinois Appellate Court on Thursday ordered a new trial for convicted rapist Bennie Starks, ruling that DNA tests have shown a crime-lab analyst presented false scientific evidence at his 1986 trial.
Starks, 46, who has served nearly 20 years of a 60-year prison term after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 69-year-old Waukegan woman, has maintained his innocence since he was arrested.
"This is a triumph of justice," said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project who has been representing Starks along with Waukegan attorney Jed Stone.
"This is an incredible example of how DNA evidence ferrets out legal mistakes and wrongful convictions and creates a more level playing field for the accused," Stone said.
Michael Mermel, a Lake County prosecutor who has fought to preserve Starks' conviction, said Thursday that the ruling would be appealed.
The battle over Starks' claim of innocence has dragged out for several years.
In 2002, his lawyers filed a motion for a new trial after DNA tests conducted on the victim's underwear isolated a male profile that was not his.
After Lake County Circuit Judge Christopher Starcks dismissed that motion, biological evidence long believed lost was discovered in the Northern Illinois Crime Lab. DNA tests on that evidence excluded Starks.
In the meantime, the defense lawyers discovered laboratory reports by an analyst at the crime lab who performed blood tests on the evidence in 1986, as DNA testing was not then available.
Defense lawyers contended that the lab reports showed that Starks should have been excluded, but the crime lab analyst, who no longer works at the lab, testified that Starks could have been the attacker.
Starks' lawyers again sought a new trial, but they were rejected. The appeals court overturned the rejection, citing the DNA exclusion, the false testimony from the crime lab analyst, and trial testimony from the victim that was impeached.
At Starks' trial, a public-aid worker testified that after the attack, the victim told her that she had not been raped but had been physically assaulted by someone acting on behalf of people jealous of her sexual relationship with someone else.
The appeals court said the DNA results so contradicted the victim's identification of Starks as her attacker that the jury's verdict "was manifest error." The outcome of a new trial, with the new evidence, would likely be different, the court ruled.
At the trial, the victim said Starks 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 victim, and Starks' jacket was found near the scene of the alleged attack.
Starks said he had spent the evening in a nearby tavern and had been robbed of his money and coat on his way home.
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