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Case dropped, man walks free after spending 20 years in prison for double murder

Standing between her son, Michael, and husband, Matthew Sr., Patricia Sopron talks to reporters about the pending release from prison of her son, Matthew Jr., whose conviction for ordering a 1995 gang shooting that left two 13-year-old girls dead, was overturned Tuesday. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

After serving 20 years of a life sentence, Matthew Sopron walked out of Stateville Prison Tuesday afternoon a free man — just hours after Cook County prosecutors dropped murder charges against him after witnesses admitted to lying on the stand during his trial.

Earlier, Sopron, 45, had smiled as he walked past a courtroom gallery overflowing with supporters Tuesday morning. Gasps and sniffling filled the room as Assistant State’s Attorney Carol Rogala asked Judge Timothy Joyce to vacate Sopron’s conviction for a 1995 gang shooting that killed two eighth-grade girls.

“Finally, justice,” Sopron’s mother, Patricia, said in the courthouse lobby after the hearing. “How many years that the lies never matched up, but the truth always matched up? In court last week, we heard the same exact words [from each witness], so the truth was there.”

The decision by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office comes after two days of testimony on a motion for a new trial — hearings that ended on Dec. 14, 23 years to the day that Carrie Hovel and Helena Martin were killed by a volley of bullets fired by 15-year-old Eric Anderson.

Last week, Anderson testified for the first time that he barely knew Sopron, who was then 22, and that no one ordered him to target the van in which Martin and Hovel were riding in with members of a rival gang. Three other witnesses who testified at Sopron’s trial had previously recanted testimony that Sopron was a leader of a South Side faction of the Almighty Popes street gang.

Sopron and co-defendant Wayne Antusas were arrested nine months after the shooting, after one of Anderson’s teenage co-defendants named them as a Popes leaders who had ordered the younger members to “light up” the van. Sopron, who was 22 at the time of the shooting, maintained his innocence at trial and his family has rallied behind him for a decades-long series of appeals, social media outreach and even to pay for a billboard along the Stevenson Expressway emblazoned with the words “Free Matt Sopron.”

Patrick Walsh, Sopron’s lawyer since his arrest in 1996, said it was a vindication.

“Every witness who testified against him now has said that he lied,” Walsh said. “I thought I won every day of the trial [in 1998]. … I knew it was all B.S.”

Matt Sopron | Provided
Matt Sopron | Provided

Sopron and Antusas both were sentenced to life in prison, though Antusas’ punishment was reduced last year to 54 years following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned life sentences for defendants sentenced as minors.

Antusas’ mother, sister and attorney joined Sopron’s supporters in the courtroom, and said they would seek to have his conviction overturned as well.

Tom Hovel, Carrie Hovel’s father, said he learned that prosecutors would drop the case against Sopron Tuesday morning at the courthouse, and he and his family opted not to sit in the courtroom gallery.

Prosecutors “just told us they didn’t have the evidence to go forward,” he said, noting that he and his family attended re-sentencing hearings earlier this year when Anderson’s life sentence was lowered to 60 years. “I would never want this feeling to be on my worst enemy. It never goes away. It comes back on you every year. We been through a lot this year.”

Hovel sat through Sopron and Antusas’ trial, but wasn’t able to get time off from work to hear the testimony in Sopron’s post-conviction hearing last week.

“When you sit through the trial, you don’t think he’s innocent. You think, these are his friends, they’re saying this was what happened,” he said. “Now it’s the same people come back, they’re saying they lied. Is that true? That’s some friends, that would let their friend sit in jail for [two decades].”