Charges dropped in 1985 Lake County rape case

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Bennie Starks was arrested for beating and raping a 69-year-old woman in 1986. DNA test in 2001 did not match, so sexual charges against him were dropped today. He poses outside the Willis Tower on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Sexual assault charges were dropped Tuesday against a man who served 20 years for a 1985 rape in Waukegan.

In January 1985, a 69-year-old woman was walking in her neighborhood when she was attacked and sexually assaulted. She was hospitalized for 11 days after the attack.

Bennie Starks’ jacket was recovered from the crime scene, the victim identified Starks in a photo lineup and bite marks found on the victim matched Starks’ teeth.

Starks served 20 years of the 60-year prison sentence he received after his 1986 conviction. But DNA testing from sperm recovered after the trial ruled out Starks as the rapist, said Vanessa Potkin, staff attorney with New York-based Innocence Project.

“This is a huge day,” Potkin said after three sexual assault charges against Starks were dismissed Tuesday in Lake County Court. “It’s really been a long time coming.”

Potkin called the bite mark evidence “junk science” that is “notoriously unreliable.” She said she believed police suggested the victim pick Starks’ photo in the lineup.

Potkin also said that Starks had been robbed of his coat and other items the same day as the attack, yet police built a case against him anyway.

Starks was granted a new trial in 2006 and released from custody because the state appellate court ruled defense attorneys were not allowed to properly cross-examine the alleged victim, who is now dead.

Starks said Tuesday after court that he always was “definitely confident” he would emerge victorious.

“I just kept the faith. I never wavered in my belief in my attorneys and my spiritual leader, God. It’s been a long battle,” Starks said.

Starks said he now plans to spend time with his family and grandchildren “just living,” he said, and commended the Innocence Project for its work since it took him on as a client in 1996.

Starks is not quite completely exonerated from the 1985 crime. A legal technicality severed the sexual assault charges from an aggravated battery charge, Potkin said. The appellate court has yet to rule whether Starks has the right to challenge the aggravated battery charge.

“We’re very hopeful the appellate court will put this case to rest,” Potkin said.

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