December 14, 1995
Early in the morning on Chicago’s Southwest side, two guns were stolen from a policewoman’s home. Later that day, in the early evening hours, two teenaged girls were killed while seated in a van with two gang members.
Billy Bigeck was picked up walking the streets that night. After first trying to lie about an alibi, he finally confessed to his involvement in the day’s events, from stealing the guns to being involved at the scene of the murders. He named four of his “friends” as his accomplices. Eddie Morfin, Nick Morfin, Nick Liberto and Eric Anderson were all were arrested. Some gave incriminating post-arrest statements and all were charged with multiple first degree murder counts. By all accounts, Matt Sopron’s name was never mentioned. Matt was neither present nor had participated in the murders.
Over nine months later, Billy Bigeck, facing a mandatory life sentence or a possible death penalty, contacts the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office looking for a deal. To get his deal, he changes his original statements (which he had testified under oath to indict his four co-defendants at their Grand Jury hearings). Now he also implicates Matt Sopron and another guy, Wayne Antusas. Both were charged with the murders under an attenuated accountability theory after lead prosecutor, Scott Cassidy secured statements from two other young men. Brian O’Shea and John Gizowski each claimed that on December 14, 1995 they were at Nick Morfin’s house and saw Matt Sopron come in. Each one named different people that Matt was with. They each stated that they heard Matt talking to Nick Morfin. Bryan O’Shea said that Matt said “take care of the neighborhood”. Billy Bigeck told them Matt said “Pull a roll on the Ridgeway Lords”. John Gizowski said that Matt’s words were to “Light up the van”. Even though their statements did not match, the State maintained that Matt was responsible for planning the shooting.
The State’s three principal witnesses against Matt were Billy Bigeck, Bryan O’Shea and John Gizowski. In exchange for testifying against Matt and others, Bigeck (and Ed Morfin) pled guilty to a single murder count (having one of the girls murders dropped). John Gizowski and O’Shea were not charged for their testimony. Ed Morfin never did implicate Matt in any of his trial testimonies at the other trials.
June 19, 1997
A jury convicts Eric Anderson of two counts of 1st degree murder.
July 18, 1997
A jury convicts Nick Morfin of two counts of 1st degree murder.
February 2-9, 1998 TRIAL
During Matt’s bench trial in front of Judge Joseph Kazmierski, each witness testified that they heard some of the 12 or 13 words. None of their stories matched. Each said this all went down at a different time. One said 9:30 A.M., another said 11:00 A.M. and another said 2:30 P.M. All three stated that Matt came to the house with different people. They even excluded the other witness from even being present. O’Shea stated that Matt came to the house with a longtime friend of his, Don B., someone he would never have mistaken. When Don was brought to court to testify by Matt’s defense, he showed records from his job showing there was no way possible he was at that house that day. The State refused to cross examine him. John Gizowski said that he never even saw Ed Morfin and that he was positive that Bryan O’Shea was not there. John said he never heard the term “pull a roll” and also never heard anyone say to “take care of the neighborhood”.
Matt’s (actual innocence) defense included testimony from several defense witnesses, including John Gizowski’s brothers, Eugene and Michael. Both testified that they went to Nick Morfin’s house that morning with Matt and were driven by a friend, Mike Barnowski. During the few minutes they were there with him, Matt did not utter any of the words attributed by their brother John (or by Bryan O’Shea or Bigeck either). They said their brother John was not even at the house with them that morning. They stated there was never any mention of a plan or shooting by anyone.
Matt testified that on the morning of December 14, 1995, he was with Eugene and Michael Gizowski and Mike Barnowski. Matt, Gene and Mike all worked midnight shift jobs. Matt worked midnights at Certified Warehouse. Some mornings they would all get together after work. He stated that they did stop briefly at the Morfin hose. Nick’s older brother Frank (24 years) was a good friend of his. Matt was 22 and Nick was 17 at the time. Frank wasn’t home and they left after a few minutes. Matt stated that there was never any discussion in that house of a shooting or a plan to shoot anyone. He said he only spoke with Nick Morfin while in that house. Bryan O’Shea was in the house and Matt had known him for years, but did not talk to him that day. He said there were other younger kids in the house that he really didn’t know and said nothing to them. He then stated that John Gizowski did not go to the house with him and was not in the house that day while he was there. He did not see him at all that day.
There was no physical evidence against Matt and no confession. The State did not even allege he was present during the murders. The case boiled down to if the judge believed the three principal witnesses, all of whom testified against Matt with something to gain or avoid, even though their stories did not match at all.
Following the balance of trial testimonies, Matt was found guilty as being accountable for both murders and sentenced on April 20, 1998 to a mandatory life sentence.
Billy Bigeck and Ed Morfin (the other one at the scene of the murders who admitted his guilt) were given 50 year sentences, only having to serve half of that – 25 years. Ed Morfin testified against some of the other codefendants at their trials, including his cousin Nick Morfin. But, he never mentioned Matt Sopron’s name or testified against him. Why would the State’s #2 co-defendant witness not testify against Matt, the alleged planner or even mention his name at all if it was true?
January 7, 1999
Direct Appeal filed to First District Appellate Court
July 22, 2000
Bryan O’Shea came forward and told Matt’s lawyer, Patrick Walsh, that he lied during the trial against Matt. In a very long, detailed interview, he explained why. He said he was sick of living with the fact that he had lied in court. Bryan said he tried to tell the States Attorney Scott Cassidy, who picked him up from Little Co of Mary drug rehab and held him for days, that he did not want to lie about Matt. But, ASA Scott Cassidy didn’t want to hear it. He told Cassidy over and over that none of the stuff he was telling him was true. Cassidy kept yelling, pressuring him and trying to scare him into testifying against Matt. O’Shea stated that Cassidy would keep threatening him with charges, including murder. His family sent him a lawyer while he was being held and questioned. O’Shea said his lawyer told him to tell the State whatever they wanted to hear because his family doesn’t have the money to retain him if O’Shea is charged with murder. O’Shea said they led him to believe all along that he would be charged with the murders and may spend the rest of his life in prison. He gave in finally and reluctantly went along with them. He gave his story based on the leading and suggestive questions they kept asking. Before the trial, the States Attorneys coached him and went over the story with him several times to make sure he would remember. They always reminded him of what would happen if he didn’t go along with it.
February 6, 2001
John Gizowski came forward and told Matt’s lawyer that he had lied in the trial. John was extremely scared of Scott Cassidy and it was torturing him that he had lied. He gave a statement telling why he had lied and how scared and threatened he was by Scott Cassidy. He said Cassidy was very intimidating and told John graphic stories of what would happen to him in prison if he goes there for life. This went on and on. John stated that everything he said in court was what Scott Cassidy told him to say. Cassidy said if he did not go through with it he would be charged with perjury or murder. John stated that he never even saw Matt on December 14, 1995. Everything he testified to in Matt’s trial was a lie. John told how he was coached by Cassidy for the year and a half leading up to the trial. He said the States Attorney and States Attorney investigators constantly called him and would even pick him up and drive around intimidating him and threatening him to stick to his story.
February 7, 2001 – Original Post Conviction/1401 was Filed
Matt Sopron asserts that he was “actually innocent” and his original bench trial conviction was based on false testimony.
September 7, 2001
Nicholas Liberto is found not guilty by Judge John Moran of the two murders.
Evidentiary Hearing was granted
January 2002 – November 2003. Matt was granted an evidentiary hearing based on his newly discovered evidence, the recanted statements from John Gizowski and Bryan O’Shea. John Gizowski testified on the stand that he lied because he was afraid of Scott Cassidy and the threats of a murder prosecution if he did not testify that Matt had said some of those 12 or 13 words. Similarly Bryan O’Shea testified to committing perjury at Matt’s trial because of his lawyer told him to do it and that was the only way he would go home. He also feared ASA Scott Cassidy and was scared of being charged with murder. John and Bryan both told their shocking stories of the actions and words of ASA Scott Cassidy. Bryan even said he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions and would plead guilty to perjury if charged.
Neither John Gizowski or Bryan O’Shea have ever come forward for or recanted for any of the other co-defendants.
Mike Barnowski then testified that he drove Matt, Gene and Michael Gizowski that morning. He said he avoided testifying in the trial because he too was scared and did not want to get involved. However, after learning of Matt’s conviction, he knew he had to come forward and tell the truth. He stated how he went into the house briefly with the others and never heard Matt or anyone else mention a shooting or a plan. He never saw John Gizowski in the Morfin house that day. Gene and Michael Gizowski testified again that they were with Matt and Mike Barnowski that day. They went to Nick Morfin’s house for 5 to 10 minutes. There was no discussion or plan of any shooting. They said their brother John was not there in the house while they were there with Matt.
Nick Liberto, who was also charged with these same murders and was acquitted of them on September 7, 2001, was subpoenaed to testify in Sopron’s post conviction hearing. He pled the 5th. His lawyer said that without immunity, he was still fearful of the State. The judge refused giving him immunity even though he had given it to other State witnesses during the trial and that Liberto had already been acquitted of the crime. The State did not seem to want to hear what Liberto had to say.
Sometime during the first two months of the PC evidentiary hearing, Matt’s lawyer, Allan Ackerman, received a California post-marked envelope with no return address. Inside was an October 16, 1999 inmate affidavit signed by Ed Morfin, one of the plea-bargained guilty defendants involved in the murders. Ed Morfin testified against his cousin Nick Morfin and Nick Liberto, but not against Matt. The affidavit said that he lied about everything he testified to and that ASA Scott Cassidy “made me fabricate testimony” implicating others in the deaths of two girls on December 14, 1995. He only did it to dodge a life sentence. It stated that “I was vulnerable to prosecution’s tactics and falsely accused these men on the direction of Scott Cassidy”. Months later when brought in to testify in court, he denied any knowledge of the affidavit. He stated that the signature on it looked like his, but he didn’t remember signing it. The affidavit was notarized by a paralegal who was working at Joliet CC law library. Matt’s lawyer brought in Carlitta Tucker, the woman who notarized this paper. She testified she didn’t exactly remember Ed Morfin because she notarized dozens of legal papers each month while working at the prison. She stated she would never notarize any paper without the inmate having proper ID showing his name matching the one on the paper getting notarized. Matt’s lawyer also showed records from the IDOC proving that Carlitta Tucker worked in the law library on that date in question and Ed Morfin was also present.
The State never called ASA Scott Cassidy in to testify. Every defense witness and recanted witness spoke of him as the one who made all the threats towards them and all allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
The State did call State’s Attorney Investigators William Marley who testified in the trial and his partner Len Bajenski, who testified in the post-conviction hearing. Both were retired Chicago police officers. Investigator Marley spoke at the trial about his report of the interrogations, even though it had been entered much after his interrogation of a witness, and said it was all the truth. Bajenski said that there were never any threats made to witnesses or any force, which conflicted what John Gizowski had reported in the post conviction hearing. Len Bajenski and William Marley were part of the Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s crew who tortured dozens of African American suspects into falsely confessing to murders they did not commit in the 80s and 90s. Bajenski and Marley’s names were brought up in cases documented in the Chicago newspapers and in other investigative reports by Northwestern Law and various other sources. The city has paid out over $100 million in law suits over the years because of the tactics of police under Commander John Burge.
November 20, 2003
After all of this was presented, Sopron’s petition for relief was denied. Judge Kazmierski stated that he did not believe Matt’s witnesses. He did not believe the recantations. He did believe Ed Morfin saying he didn’t know anything about that affidavit because the defense had no way to prove who sent the affidavit to Matt’s lawyer.
June 3, 2005 Successive Second Post Conviction
Part of Matt’s newly discovered evidence included an unusual IDOC inmate affidavit describing the background of the Ed Morfin October 16, 1999 affidavit. The (named inmate’s) never challenged 2005 affidavit recounted how William Bigeck and Ed Morfin came to him while in Joliet CC protective custody and confided in him that Matt Sopron was framed and not guilty of anything. Bigeck had come to this inmate because he was a “jail house lawyer” for help. Bigeck had concocted a plan to have this inmate type up an affidavit for him and Ed Morfin to sign stating how they had lied at the trials that they testified at. Then this inmate was to send the affidavits to Bigeck’s mother who lived in California. She would then mail them back to the address they had for Sopron’s lawyer, Allan Ackerman. Bigeck slyly ripped his up and sent the Ed Morfin affidavit to his mother. Bigeck’s plan was that after his mother sent this to Sopron’s lawyer, it would help Matt get a new trial. So, then the State would need him to testify against Matt again. However, at that time, Bigeck would only testify against Matt again if the State gave him a better deal than the 25 years he got. This inmate stated that he typed up the affidavit and sent it to Bigeck’s mother like he was told to do. This inmate even still possessed the hand written address of Bigeck’s mother, Juanita Trujillo, 1038 Fassier Ave., Pacifica, Cal. 97077. This zip code matched the postmark on the mysterious Ed Morfin affidavit. The mystery surrounding the 10/16/1999 affidavit lasted over four years until Matt’s chance 2005 IDOC Menard segregation encounter with the inmate who recounted all that had occurred in Matt’s case ( to Matt’s complete surprise). He had learned all of the facts of the case from Bigeck and Ed Morfin. The affidavit provided unusual details of the case and it readily appears that the inmate is truly credible. He furnished Allan Ackerman with the paper he had saved with the California address on it. There was no way anyone would know Billy Bigeck’s mother’s name or address in California.
February 9, 2009
Sandra Gizowski (mother of John, Eugene and Michael Gizowski) gave an affidavit. She poignantly swore that John had told her many, many times that he had lied about Matt and why he lied for the prosecution at Matt’s trial. She said he did this because of his fear of Asst. State’s Attorney Scott Cassidy and of being charged with the murders himself if he didn’t say Matt said those words. John said he had to take what he said back because it was lies. He didn’t care about perjury because Matt was in jail and didn’t do anything. John is now deceased and his mother believes it was the constant fear and stress that the State’s Attorneys put him through and living with the fact that he had lied about Matt that attributed to his getting into the drugs, which ultimately caused his death. She wanted to clear Matt’s name and say that she knew John had lied to honor her son’s memory. Her affidavit remains part of the record.
March 17, 2010 – During 2nd P/C
The State filed “People’s disclosure concerning William Bigeck and Edward Morfin”. This was 26 pages long. These new disclosures documented numerous custodial misdeeds and favors accorded to Bigeck and Ed Morfin while held in the Witness Protection Quarters before, during and after the trials. These actions were documented after there had been an investigation of the Witness Protection quarters. All of this had been covered up and never handed over to Sopron’s lawyer for more than twelve years. The papers detailed numerous incidents of fighting with other inmates, being involved with starting riots against officers, being caught with all kinds of contraband in their cells. From weapons, weapon making materials, “hooch” prison wine and materials to make it. Damaging property, having food brought in from the streets by States Attorney’s investigators and a half a pound of sugar. Bigeck admitted to using marijuana while in custody and staying drunk. He was paid $35.00 per week by the States Attorney’s office and was given radios and head phones. He was able to use a coffee maker, microwave, hot plate and an iron. All preferential treatment while under the watch of ASA Scott Cassidy. General population inmates get no money and have no access to any of the things Bigeck and Eddie Morfin did.
February 2, 2012
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announces the beginning of the new Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit was put together to look into cases of those who have claimed they are wrongfully convicted. This was due to the rash of wrongful convictions costing the tax payers millions of dollars and which showed how many innocent men have spent years in a prison where they did not belong.
April 30, 2012
Matt Sopron’s lawyer, Allan Ackerman, was notified by a letter from the Conviction Integrity Unit that they have taken on his case and it is to be reviewed. They have yet to interview Matt or any of his witnesses at all as of July 2014.
July 23, 2012
Judge Joseph Kazmierski denied the request for an evidentiary hearing.
August 23, 2012
A Petition for a Rehearing to Appellate court was filed.
November 15, 2012
Illinois Supreme Court consolidation the two PLA’s was filed.
January 20, 2013
Supreme Court denied these appeals.