News Releases

Schiff Hardin LLP Obtains Exoneration of Wrongfully Convicted Man Freed after Serving Twenty Years in Prison

May 15, 2012

Bennie Starks, freed in 2006 after serving 20 years in prison for a sexual assault crime he did not commit and which scientific evidence proves he could not have committed, will not have to face retrial on these charges thanks to the combined efforts of the New York Innocence Project, Chicago-based criminal defense firm Stone & Associates, Lauren Kaeseberg and Schiff Hardin attorneys, who represented Mr. Starks pro bono. Lake County, Ill. prosecutors today dropped the charges against Bennie Starks at a brief hearing.

As background, Bennie Starks was sentenced to 60 years in prison after being convicted in 1986 of criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery of a woman in Lake County, Ill., despite numerous inconsistencies in the victim’s testimony and the State serology expert’s dubious analysis of the forensic evidence. When subsequent proper scientific analysis of the DNA evidence proved that Mr. Starks did not and could not have committed this crime, an Illinois appeals court freed Mr. Starks in 2006 and ordered a new trial.

In 2010, Schiff Hardin lawyers successfully argued at a pre-trial hearing that any such prosecution would violate Mr. Starks’ Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him, since the victim had died. The trial court agreed and Lake County, Ill., prosecutors confirmed today that Mr. Starks no longer faces the prospect of being prosecuted again on the charges that resulted in his two decades of wrongful imprisonment.

Schiff Hardin Managing Partner Ronald S. Safer successfully argued the 2010 appeal that obtained this result.

Here is a timeline outlining Mr. Starks’ quarter-century odyssey through the legal system and the events leading to his freedom:

  • 1986 – Bennie Starks is convicted of criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery of a 68-year-old woman, despite numerous inconsistencies in her story, and sentenced to sixty years in prison.
  • 1996 – The New York Innocence Project takes on Mr. Starks’ case and new DNA technology proved that semen found on the victim’s underwear was not from Mr. Starks. This information was contrary to the State serology expert’s testimony in 1986.
  • March 2002 – Mr. Starks filed a motion for a new trial based on the new DNA evidence. The trial court denied his motion and Mr. Starks appealed.
  • March 2006 – The Second District Appellate Court of Illinois reversed Mr. Starks’ criminal sexual assault conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. After spending twenty years in prison, Mr. Starks was released on bond pending his new trial. Despite the DNA evidence, the Lake County State’s Attorneys office proceeded with retrying Starks on the rape charges.
  • July 2010 – The New York Innocence Project reached out to Schiff Hardin LLP asking that the firm lead Mr. Starks’ defense in the new trial.
  • September 2010 – Since the victim in this case had since died, Schiff Hardin’s defense team filed a motion to preclude the use of the victim’s testimony from the 1986 trial because doing so would constitute a violation of Mr. Starks’ Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him.
  • January 5, 2011 – The trial court ruled in Mr. Starks’ favor, finding that the State’s use of the victim’s trial testimony would indeed be a constitutional violation.
  • February 5, 2011 – The State’s right to appeal the trial court’s ruling expired.
  • May 15, 2012 – Prosecuting attorneys at a brief hearing dropped sexual assault charges against Mr. Starks. He will not be retried in this case and he is free of further prosecution for a crime he did not commit.

"From the day that he was falsely accused of a horrendous crime in the 1980s, Bennie Starks has been living a nightmare. His exoneration proves that the presumption of innocence is not enough to prevent a wrongful conviction. We are very proud of the role that Schiff Hardin lawyers – including our Managing Partner, Ron Safer – played in righting this terrible wrong," said Robert H. Riley, Schiff Hardin’s chairman.

The New York Innocence Project team included Barry Scheck, Vanessa Potkin, Lauren Kaeseberg (who began work on the case as a law student intern and is now a licensed attorney and member of the defense team). Ronald S. Safer led the Schiff Hardin defense team, which included Brooke M. Schaefer and paralegal Art Mitzel, as well as former Schiff Hardin attorneys Theresa M. Williams and Jessica K. Fender. Jed Stone and John Curnyn of Stone & Associates rounded out the team.