Criminal Justice

Super Sperm

The DNA-denying prosecutor

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Six years ago, Michael Mermel, chief of the criminal division for the Lake County, Illinois, State's Attorney's Office, dismissed DNA tests exonerating Bernie Starks, a man convicted of raping a 68-year-old woman. Starks had been in prison since 1986. The DNA came from semen in the victim's underwear. Had it come from the woman's vagina, Mermel argued at the time, "I would be standing over there advocating the side that the defense has in the case."

Actually, he wouldn't. Three years later, crime lab workers found a missing rape kit from the case, which included a vaginal swab containing semen. A DNA test on the ejaculate again excluded Starks. Mermel, whose odd attitudes toward DNA evidence was chronicled in a December exposé by Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune, again refused to concede. This time, he argued that the woman must have had consensual sex with another man around the same time as the rape.

When it comes to the people he prosecutes, Mermel seems to have more faith in his hunches than he does in science. In 2005, when DNA testing on a rape and murder victim excluded another one of Mermel's suspects, he refused to concede that he might have charged the wrong person. He argued that the more likely explanation was that the 11-yearold victim had been sexually active at the time of the rape.

Mermel's greatest hit might be the case of Jerry Hobbs, who was accused of killing his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend in 2005. When Hobbs' attorneys revealed in court that DNA tests showed the semen found in the mouth, rectum, and vagina of Hobbs' daughter didn't belong to Hobbs, Mermel postulated that the semen must have found its way into the girl's body while she was playing in a patch of woods where teenagers were known to have sex. The girl was found fully clothed.