‘It still haunts me to this day’

Allan Ackerman has made a career putting up inventive defenses for mob bosses and hitmen. His defense this time is that his client is innocent. He has taken the case pro bono. He might take it to his grave. <em>Lisa Predko</em>
Allan Ackerman has made a career putting up inventive defenses for mob bosses and hitmen. His defense this time is that his client is innocent. He has taken the case pro bono. He might take it to his grave. —Photo by Lisa Predko
August 2015

On the fifth floor of a 122-year-old South LaSalle Street building, the door opens to the office of Allan Ackerman. It’s a one-room, paper-filled cave that is testimony to how lawyers used to work.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Ackerman is 77, after all. But the place, like the man, seems trapped in a much earlier time.

Hundreds of law books line the walls. There is a dictation machine. There is no Lexis Nexis. Ackerman doesn’t Google. If he could still smoke inside, the five-foot-barely-anything Old Town resident would light up his Pall Malls in a heartbeat.

This is the office of a man who wears a cowboy hat and boots to the Daley Center and the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. He perpetually wonders what character he’d be if he lived in the Wild West. And he compares himself to a coroner.

That’s in reference to appeals in criminal defense cases, which Ackerman calls “legal autopsies.” He spends his days searching for wrongful causes of conviction: legal errors made by the prosecution or a judge. He has proudly done this for some of the city’s most notorious criminals, often making news for representing the Chicago Outfit.

There was Joseph Aiuppa, believed to be the leader of the Chicago mob until he was sentenced to 28½ years in prison at the age of 79 for skimming profits from a Las Vegas casino.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film “Casino,” you know the demise of Joe Pesci’s character and his brother. Those bloody deaths were based on the Spilotro brothers; Ackerman represented the younger, Michael. After Michael was killed, Ackerman wrote a letter published by legendary newsman Mike Royko attesting that his deceased friend was “a family man” who “understood that everyone has value.” Spilotro, it should be said, died while facing trial on a charge he extorted money from suburban prostitution rings.

Or how about Harry Aleman, perhaps the most feared hitman in the history of Chicago gangsters, reputed to be responsible for up to 20 killings. Defending an appeal for a murder charge that Aleman beat, Ackerman argued that a $10,000 bribe paid to the judge who acquitted him did not warrant a retrial. Double jeopardy still applied, Ackerman unsuccessfully argued, because the judge could have taken the money and not made good on his promise to let Aleman walk.

“What if the bribe doesn’t work?” Ackerman said.

“Allan is a defense attorney. What do you expect him to say?” said Carol Marin, the longtime reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC5 who has covered Ackerman’s mob-related trials.

Indeed, Ackerman has had no moral quandary making esoteric legal arguments to defend clients some might consider the most sinister criminals. That’s the role of the defense lawyer, he said.

So, what does it mean when he simply says that someone is innocent?

Matthew Sopron (Illinois Dept of Corrections)

Ackerman believes that about Matthew Sopron (pictured at right). This is the story of why. And it is the story of what Ackerman has done for 17 years — on a pro bono basis for the past five — to get Sopron released from a life sentence he received after being convicted of ordering a gang hit that resulted in the unintended deaths of two 13-year-old girls in 1995.

Ackerman said he has spent “incalculable” hours on two post-conviction trials, two appeals to the Illinois Appellate Court and one petition for Illinois Supreme Court review. All of it has been unsuccessful.

Nothing is scheduled on any court docket regarding Sopron’s conviction. But Ackerman still believes there is one witness who could come forward and prove Sopron’s innocence.

Celeste Stack, supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, said in a letter to Ackerman in 2012 that the case was under review. Neither Stack nor the state’s attorney’s office returned requests for comment.

This story is based on a review of transcripts from the original trial, other court documents and interviews.

“I can’t remember another case where I knew in my heart that (a) man was actually innocent,” Ackerman said. “It still haunts me to this day.”

A gang dispute, a double murder

Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood is a grid of bungalow homes and manicured lawns from 59th to 65th streets with Midway Airport serving as the rectangle’s eastern edge and Harlem Avenue its western border.

Hale Park and Nathan Hale Elementary School sit almost perfectly in the middle of the community. From this epicenter, the neighborhood changed forever on Dec. 14, 1995, the night Helena Martin and Carrie Hovel, both eighth-graders, were shot and killed in a beige van parked outside their school.

“Anybody that entered that school the next day, we were like zombies,” said Judy Ollry, a 38-year Clearing resident whose daughter was a classmate of Martin and Hovel. “We just couldn’t wrap our minds around something like this happening to anybody in our community.”

An attempt to reach the girls’ families was unsuccessful.

Five people were charged with the murders, all said to be members of a mostly white neighborhood gang called the Almighty Popes. They were Edward Morfin, 19; William Bigeck, 18; Nicholas Morfin, 17; Nicholas Liberto, 16; and the shooter, Eric Anderson, 15.

Leading up to the shooting, there had been tension between this group and the beige van, purportedly driven by members of the Ridgeway Lords, a rival gang. Two or three weeks before the shootings, the 17-year-old treasurer for the Almighty Popes, Sean O’Brien, testified at Sopron’s 1998 trial that he was with Bigeck when they “bricked” the van, breaking its windows. In retaliation, the Ridgeway Lords bricked an Almighty Pope’s house, O’Brien testified.

Another incident involved chasing the van and shouting at it. The next interaction with the van would be much different. On the morning of the shooting, Bigeck and Anderson broke into a home of a police officer and stole two guns.

What happened next is the heart of the controversy in Sopron’s case.

Sopron was 22 at the time of the shootings; he was first implicated in the murders nine months after the original five were arrested.

That came about because of a plea agreement Bigeck entered into while in Cook County Jail awaiting a trial that could carry the death sentence, which Illinois had at the time. The deal would eliminate one of the murder charges he faced and reduce the state’s sentencing request to 30 years. Ed Morfin signed the same deal, which included a guilty plea to one of the murders.

In exchange, the jailhouse informants testified that Sopron and Wayne Antusas, a 17-year-old at the time of the crime, ordered the shootings from what Bigeck said were their perches as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, of the Almighty Popes.

‘The pulse of this, it smells’

At Petro’s Restaurant in the Bilandic Building in July, Ackerman recalled his initial reaction to the state’s theory in Sopron’s case, something based on Bigeck’s testimony. He bunched his fingers together and put them to his nose: “The pulse of this, it smells.”

“When you go through all of it,” he said, “you get the gut impression that there is something wrong.”

There is no denying, however, that Sopron saw the stolen guns on the day of the murder. At issue is what he said after seeing them.

Bigeck testified that he and Anderson took their guns to Nick Morfin’s house. A call was placed to Sopron’s home, and he arrived at the Morfin house shortly afterward. Sopron was longtime friends with Nick Morfin and started with the Popes around 1991, when he gave himself the nickname “Misfit.” Search his real name on YouTube, and videos show his nickname spray painted on walls in the neighborhood, in addition to other videos of his family raising support for his release.

Bigeck testified that when Sopron arrived the day of the shooting, he had a brief and unsuccessful negotiation to buy the guns. Then, he gave the order.

“We were all sitting around,” Bigeck said in a bench trial before Cook County Circuit Judge Joseph G. Kazmierski in February 1998, “and Matt Sopron said that someone needs to pull roll on the Ridgeway Lords, needs to take care of them.”

“Pull roll” meant a shooting, and Sopron picked Anderson to be the shooter, Bigeck told the judge.

Bigeck and others gave up their fellow gang members to police shortly after being arrested, trial court testimony shows. But Bigeck testified he did not initially implicate Sopron because Sopron, who Bigeck said was the leader of the gang at the time, could have him killed.

A case comes together

Two other Almighty Popes, John Gizowski and Bryan O’Shea, also testified they heard Sopron give an order that day.

There are some conflicts in their testimony. Gizowski said Sopron told them to “light up the van.” O’Shea used the words “take care of the Ridgeway Lords.” Neither of them mentioned, as Bigeck claimed, that Sopron picked Anderson as the shooter.

Ackerman often refers to this testimony regarding Sopron’s order as “the uttering of a dozen or so words which provide the sine qua non of a first-degree murder conviction,” in a use of a Latin phrase that translates to “without which nothing” and refers to the essential element of a case.

“If you have five or six defendants already charged with first-degree murder in the killing of two youngsters, and those prosecutions are ready to go forward, why the devil, eight months later, do you go chase down Matt Sopron?” Ackerman said. “Why? Was he the functional equivalent of Al Capone? What was he?”

Sopron, testifying in his own defense, said he was a former gang member who had been “fading away” from the Popes for at least a year. For the past two years, he worked a night shift as a forklift driver five days a week at Certified Grocers Midwest, a food distributor. And on the weekends, he said he spent his time with his girlfriend from Naperville, a 45-minute drive from his home.

While he did go to the house that day, he said he gave no orders for a shooting then or at any other time. He said he and John Gizowski’s two older brothers, Mike and Gene, left the house shortly after they were offered to buy the guns, which they weren’t interested in. Both of John’s brothers testified in support of Sopron’s story.

In a phone interview from prison for this article, Sopron did not deny his involvement in the gang and other criminal activity. But he maintained that, on the day of the murder, he only turned down an offer to buy the guns and left Nick Morfin’s home.

“I always tell people I’m not guilty of this sh-- at all, but the lifestyle I chose before this — running around and hanging out with a bunch of losers — it led me to this,” Sopron said. “If I was just a normal kid, you know, I wouldn’t have been in this sh-- at all.”

Two witnesses recant

Sean O’Brien, a prosecution witness who said he was the Almighty Popes’ treasurer, recounted the gang’s previous dealings with the rival van and painted a picture of the gang’s culture.

O’Brien said he never saw Sopron at the weekly meetings, which included three to 10 people at most. Guns weren’t around, and murder was never discussed. But it was common for the members to fight each other and others.

O’Brien collected dues, typically about $5 a week. He testified there was no punishment for “fading away” from the gang, as Sopron said he did.

The prosecution, in its closing statement, presented a more complex picture of Sopron. He was called a “sophisticated criminal” who separated himself from the “pawns” who carried out “his handiwork.”

“Probably the most uncommon aspect of the case is that for once, for a very rare situation, we are able to reach into the hierarchy all the way to the top of this cell, or this group of Popes,” Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Smith told the judge. “The usual hurdle is that code of silence that insulates leaders.”

After the six-day bench trial, Kazmierski convicted Sopron of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Patrick D. Walsh was Sopron’s lead defense lawyer at trial. Patricia Sopron, the convicted’s mother, said Walsh polled lawyers about whom to hire as an appellate lawyer.

“The consensus was Allan Ackerman,” said Pat Sopron, who still lives in Clearing with her husband, Matt Sopron Sr.

If Ackerman thought the trial court testimony smelled, things began to get ripe in July 2000. That’s when John Gizowski and Bryan O’Shea, neither of whom were charged for the crimes, recanted their testimony against Sopron.

“Nobody is holding a gun to their head. We can’t offer them anything,” Ackerman said.

“We can only hope that their conscience is such that they come forward. That’s the imbalance between the prosecution and defense. The prosecution can offer immunity. Plea agreements. Plea bargains. Complete freedom. The defense, to get a witness or witnesses, cannot do those things. And if we do, we’ll be charged with obstruction of justice.”

Gizowski’s and O’Shea’s recants would leave Bigeck as the only prosecution witness in Sopron’s case who currently stands by his story. Bigeck is scheduled to be released from prison in five years as part of his plea deal.

In a two-hour phone interview, O’Shea did not shy away from detailing his gang involvement. He told a story about once being shot at a convenience store.

Drugs and a desire for respect fueled O’Shea’s attraction to the Popes, he said. He liked alcohol and smoking marijuana, sometimes laced with cocaine. He liked that, as an older member of the gang, younger members looked up to him. “Bryan the Irish,” they would say, could out-chug anybody.

Following the shootings, he was pressured to get clean by his mother and brother. O’Shea said he started attending an outpatient Narcotics Anonymous program at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park.

Nine months after the murders, he was brought in by prosecutors for questioning, picked up from the treatment center. His attorney, Larry Axelrood, met him at the meeting.

Now a Cook County circuit judge, Axelrood differs greatly with O’Shea on what occurred in that meeting with Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Scott Cassidy. The Cook County sheriff’s office, where Cassidy now works, referred questions to the state’s attorney’s office.

O’Shea said Cassidy demanded that he implicate Sopron in the murder. Whether implicitly or explicitly, O’Shea said he was threatened with being charged for the murders. He said Axelrood took him out of the room and counseled him “to do what they want me to do.” Eventually, O’Shea said “something I thought they wanted to hear” about Sopron giving the order.

Axelrood denied this version of events, both in post-conviction testimony and in a phone interview. He said O’Shea recanted because he felt bad having helped convict a childhood friend.

“If he’s saying that I suborned perjury, that’s absolutely false,” Axelrood said in an interview. “The reality of it is he was not going to be prosecuted in exchange for his testimony. I told him, ‘Just tell the truth.’ It was a bad situation. It’s one of those things where you’re young and impulsive and making bad decisions and the result was catastrophic. You can’t take it away.”

That’s exactly what O’Shea said he was hoping to do by recanting. And, 17 years later, his emotions are still raw.

“Testifying against Matt is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life,” O’Shea said. Then he paused, fought back tears and began to describe how he felt about his second testimony at the post-conviction hearing where he said Sopron didn’t order the murders.

As far as “being able to stand myself as a person or have any respect for myself? It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I was able to put it all on the line. Being fearless about possibly going to jail (for perjury) and just telling the truth. So even though it sucks, because Matt is still locked up, at least I could say I tried.”

John Gizowski could say the same thing. In a 2002 post-conviction hearing, Gizowski testified he never saw Sopron on the day of the murders. He told a similar tale of being threatened with a murder charge by Cassidy. Unlike O’Shea, he was not represented by an attorney during his questioning.

“If you don’t play up to par, he told me, exact words was, I will f--- you,” Gizowski said on the witness stand. “I am afraid of Scott Cassidy. And I am afraid of the people he works for. And I am afraid how this just so easily happened. How they have got away with it. How people just fall victim to it very easily.”

Leonard Bajenski, a state’s attorney investigator, testified in 2003 that Gizowski’s father was present during the entire interview and that no threats were made.

After testifying for the second time, Gizowski died of a heroin overdose, 10 years ago.

His mother, Sandra Gizowski, came forward in 2009 to buttress her son’s second testimony in favor of Sopron: He did not hear Sopron give an order the day of the murders, and he never saw Sopron.

Sandra said her son lived his life in fear of people in the neighborhood who “knew he lied about Matt.” He was once beat up at a local bar. She said police officers often watched their home. So, John Gizowski rarely left the house, which itself was torn right down the middle: Her husband, a retired police officer, still disagrees with her and his son about Sopron, she said. Her two other sons, who looked at the guns with Sopron on the day of the murders, testified Sopron never gave an order to kill.

Sandra Gizowski said she believes her son’s heroin overdose was a suicide.

“I believe my son, and it broke my heart that he died not being able to help Matt,” Sandra said. “He said he didn’t care if he died, he wanted to help Matt.”

Recants are not enough

Earlier in Ackerman’s career, the similarly colorful defense lawyer Frank W. Oliver, who once wore a cape to court, gave Ackerman some advice after the pair won an acquittal in federal court.

“Allan, if you’re talking about celebrating the acquittal, don’t,” Ackerman recalls Oliver saying after a suggestion to get a post-trial drink. “If you’re not ready to mourn your losses, don’t bother celebrating your acquittals.”

That resonated with Ackerman at the time and today. But he has been unable to shake Sopron’s case.

For Ackerman, the stories told by John Gizowski, his mother and O’Shea are more than words on a page. They sat with him, cried in front of him and told him they lied under oath.

Ackerman also knows Sopron’s family — the same unit that stands firmly behind him with 16 of his 17 cousins from his mother’s side having visited him in prison.

Combined with Ackerman’s doubts about the state’s theory, these people and the way they talk about the case lead Ackerman to what he calls “an unmistakable impression that he is truly innocent.”

“When you look at somebody like John Gizowski, and he looks you in the eye, and he says, ‘Yeah, I f------ lied. I was scared s---less,’” Ackerman said. “When you have those conversations, and then you see these people testifying before the same judge who won’t believe they lied? There is something that sticks with you. At least me. And that’s the kind of thing that drives you goofy.”

Ackerman said he is driven to continue working on the case out of a sense of guilt. He spends a minimum of 10 hours a week reading the law and court rulings, sometimes waking up as early as 1 a.m. Not a week goes by, he said, that Sopron’s case doesn’t come to mind while he reads. This is what he means when he says he is “haunted” by the case.

“When I read something concerning actual innocence, or the sufficiency of evidence or current Illinois accountability cases,” he said, “I just worry that I didn’t do enough for him.”

Kazmierski ruled against Sopron in the first post-conviction petition, finding neither Gizowski’s nor O’Shea’s recanted testimony to be credible.

Kazmierski found Gizowski’s testimony untrue due to an Bajenski’s testimony that his father was allowed to sit in on his son’s interview with Cassidy — making it unlikely that the alleged threats by Cassidy actually occurred. Sandra Gizowski, however, said in an interview that her husband, John’s father, was not in the room when the threats were made.

O’Shea, meanwhile, was discredited by Axelrood’s testimony in the post-conviction hearing. Kazmierski’s dismissal was affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court.

In a second post-conviction petition, Ackerman presented more evidence to support Sopron’s actual-innocence claim. This time, he included testimony from Sandra Gizowski. And, among other things, he included an affidavit from an inmate who said Bigeck and Ed Morfin told him they “framed” Sopron.

Kazmierski dismissed the second post-conviction petition. In a 2012 ruling, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld that ruling. A three-judge panel ruled that both Sandra Gizowski’s testimony and the inmate’s affidavit were both “completely conclusory,” providing no details that would prove Sopron’s innocence. The panel also said it “seriously questions” whether either affidavit could be admitted in trial, finding them likely to be considered hearsay.

Regarding Sandra and John Gizowski’s testimony, the court wrote: “John … did not tell Sandra that defendant was never at Nick Morfin’s, just that John did not see defendant when John was there. John’s statements to Sandra do not eliminate the possibility that defendant was at Nick Morfin’s on December 14, 1995, or that he gave the order when John was not present.”

Ackerman still laments the 2012 ruling. He contends Gizowski’s post-conviction testimony that he was never at Nick Morfin’s on the day of the murders means his trial testimony — that he was there and that Sopron ordered the murders — was false.

“That’s the logistic part of it. That’s perfect Aristotelian logic,” he said.

He is frustrated by the court’s approach, which essentially knocks out each witnesses’ credibility one-by-one.

“You’re supposed to look at it as a blended concept,” he said. “You take a whole web of circumstances, you put them together. And once you put them together, the state’s case falls apart. That’s what it is.”

The Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2013.

Last chances

At its heart, the case is a “he-said-he-said.” And in that context, arguing innocence, Ackerman has found, is a higher bar than arguing not guilty.

Still, he believes there is one witness who could prove Sopron’s innocence: Nick Liberto. Liberto was charged with the two girls’ murders as a 16-year-old for his alleged role as the getaway driver.

Of the seven charged, he won the lone acquittal at a trial in 2001. And the prosecution’s story in his case, in some crucial areas, does not match that prosecution’s story in Sopron’s.

Early in Liberto’s case, on Sept. 24, 1996 — right around the time Sopron was charged — Cassidy filed a document stating Ed Morfin and Bigeck would testify on behalf of the state. The document, signed by Cassidy, reads, “Nick Morfin actually devised the original plan, which was later changed by another member in this conspiracy.”

Ed Morfin testified in the trial of his cousin, Nick, to that effect. Yet he never testified against Sopron, who was tried before a different judge.

That either indicates how strong a “code of silence” Sopron had in place, or it means Ed Morfin knew nothing about Sopron’s role in the murders.

Cassidy’s filing saying Nick Morfin devised the plan differs from his theory in Sopron’s case, which said Sopron, as the gang’s leader, gave the order to shoot at the van. Sopron’s mother, Pat, said the disparities between Ed Morfin and Bigeck’s stories lead her to believe the shooting was spontaneous.

“Should a person be sent away for life given these questions?” said Pat Sopron, who visits her son with her husband once a month. “What we’re fighting for is to have (Cook County State’s Attorney Anita) Alvarez institute a new trial through the Conviction Integrity Unit.”

Meanwhile, Ackerman wants Liberto to testify on Sopron’s behalf. Liberto was subpoenaed to testify in Sopron’s original trial, but he was allowed to remain silent due to a Fifth Amendment privilege on the theory that his testimony could open him up to a second prosecution.

Ackerman called it “absolute bull----” that Liberto could be charged again, 14 years later.

“Sooner than later, a former defendant who was acquitted will tell the truth,” he said. “And that truth will be that Matt Sopron had nothing to do with the planning of shooting at the van where the two young ladies lost their lives.”

In Ackerman’s career, he said, he has represented “dozens and dozens and dozens” of clients who have been acquitted based on his legal tactics — successfully blocking an admission of the prosecution’s evidence, for instance. Whether those clients were guilty or innocent mattered little. As a defense lawyer, he said, it’s not his job to discern guilt.

“The Constitution protects the evildoers,” he said in a 30-minute conversation about the role of a defense lawyer.

When asked why he’s so certain in his belief that Sopron is innocent, Ackerman recounts the facts of the case as he sees them: Two of the three prosecution witnesses have said they lied at trial. Sopron’s gang activity never before involved murder.

And the prosecution’s theories regarding the murder differed from defendant to defendant.

He goes on, building up the case to a conclusion no court has reached.

“The background of the testimony is such that there should be little doubt, if any,” Ackerman said. “Forget about reasonable doubt, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s factually innocent.”

As Ackerman and this reporter prepared to leave Ackerman’s office in mid-July, Judy, his secretary of more than 30 years, mentioned the artwork that Sopron makes in prison.

“What a future he could have had,” she said.

Grabbing his cowboy hat on his way to have a cigarette, Ackerman replied before she even finished, “With a little luck, he still might.”