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Buoyed by family, Matt Sopron spent 20 years fighting wrongful conviction

Video by Annie Costabile

Matt Sopron has plenty to tell people in this year’s Christmas cards. An artist of some renown — he’s won national awards from prison inmate art shows — Sopron has sent dozens of homemade cards every holiday season from the Menard Correctional Center.

The big news this year: he’s got a new return address.

Sopron was released from prison Tuesday. After he’d served more than 20 years of a life sentence for a double murder, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the charges against him; the case unraveled as multiple witnesses recanted their testimony.

Sitting in the living room of his parents Southwest Side bungalow last week, a few days after being released, Sopron admitted he hasn’t been sleeping well outside the confines of a prison cell.

“Every day I dreamed about being out, but I was never like, ‘Oh, it’s Christmas, I feel bad.’ I don’t think I was ever sad. I wouldn’t even know what that felt like,” Sopron said, his hair gray from spending nearly half his life behind bars, but his South Side accent intact.

“Being in the bed [in his parent’s basement] like that felt weirder than anything at Menard.”

Sopron shown in prison earlier this summer and last week at his parents’ home. | Illinois Dept. of Corrections mug shot; Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Sopron shown in prison earlier this summer and last week at his parents’ home. | Illinois Dept. of Corrections mug shot; Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Sopron was charged with the 1995 murders of 13-year-olds Carrie Hovel and Helena Martin, who were killed when a 15-year-old gang member sprayed gunfire at the back of a van the girls were riding in with rival gang members. The shooter, Eric Anderson, was the son of a Chicago police officer, and Sopron was dragged into the high-profile case when another gang member told prosecutors Sopron, then 22, was a gang leader and had ordered the shooting.

Sopron was confused when he was charged with murder and stunned when he was convicted. Sopron was never a gang leader, but during his time in prison he became a publicity mastermind, putting his extended family to work on ideas he hatched from his prison cell.

Soon after what he thought was his last appeal was denied in 2012, Sopron began a multi-level marketing plan, drafting friends and relatives to his cause.

A self-portrait of Matt Sopron sits on his parents’ mantel at their home on the South Side of Chicago. Sopron painted the portrait while he was in prison. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
A self-portrait of Matt Sopron sits on his parents’ mantel at their home on the South Side of Chicago. Sopron painted the portrait while he was in prison. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

“Most of the grassroots movement stuff, I came up with all that stuff,” Sopron said. “I was just sitting there in the cell, and I said, ‘I gotta try something else. We gotta do something. We got to make some noise.’”

His supporters launched freemattsopron.com as well as a Facebook page, stylish YouTube videos and had more than one design option in the “Free Matt Sopron” line of T-shirts. Friends and relatives traveling on beach vacations would unfailingly etch “Free Matt” into the sand. Trips to ballparks and landmarks were memorialized with a photo holding a “Free Matt” placard, with a graffiti-style logo that Sopron designed. An uncle hung a massive “Free Matt Sopron” sign over a billboard on the Stevenson Expressway.

After his appeals were exhausted, Matt Sopron resorted to promoting his cause through other means, including billboards, banners, t-shirts and social media. | Facebook
After his appeals were exhausted, Matt Sopron resorted to promoting his cause through other means, including billboards, banners, t-shirts and social media. | Facebook

By the time he boarded the prison bus that would take him to the Leighton Criminal Court Building earlier this month for hearings on his latest bid to overturn his conviction, Sopron was a minor celebrity. The corrections officer driving the bus from his Joliet prison even recognized his name.

“He said ‘Matt, I been driving by you every day for the last two or three years’” — the Stevenson is the main highway between Joliet and the Little Village court house — “’I been waiting for you to get on my bus,’” Sopron recalled.

“I said ‘I’m going home,’ and he asked, ‘When? Today?’ And I told him, ‘I don’t know, but it’s starting today,’” Sopron said.

The hearing would not be without some suspense. Anderson, who last year got his life sentence for the double-murder conviction reduced to 60 years, testified about Sopron’s lack of involvement in the shooting for the first time. More worrisome was the testimony of Billy Bigeck, who had first told investigators that Sopron had ordered younger Popes to “light up” a van driven through Popes territory by rival gang members.

Bigeck had signed an affidavit admitting he made up a story about Sopron being involved so he could offer something to prosecutors and cut a plea deal; he was the last of three Popes members who testified at Sopron’s trial to recant. Would he change his story again?

As Sopron, in shackles, shuffled past Bigeck on his way into court, he turned to Bigeck, who bowed his head.

“I said … ‘Go in there and tell the truth … It will change your life,” Sopron said.

Bigeck testified he had implicated Sopron and another, older Popes member, Wayne Antusas, in hopes of escaping the death penalty, and an overzealous assistant state’s attorney was only too happy to add another defendant to a heater case.

Sopron had hated Bigeck since the moment he was charged, but the hard feelings all but evaporated as he heard him testify. Bigeck had been 17 and was told he was facing a death sentence.

“As hard as it seems like it would be for me to say, I feel sorry for the kid. I don’t hate that kid,” Sopron said.

Sopron said he is looking forward to starting a career as a tattoo artist, building on connections he made with artists he contacted while he was in prison. He also wants to help other inmates beat wrongful convictions. Whether he starts his tattoo business with money from a lawsuit over his 20 years in prison, he isn’t sure.

“No amount of money can cover that,” he said, “but still, me and all these other guys that get out wrongfully convicted, we deserve something.”