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Nicholas Morfin

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
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On the evening of December 14, 1995, several shots were fired at a van driving near Hale Park on the South Side of Chicago. Two passengers in the van, 13-year-old Carrie Hovel and 13-year-old Helena Martin, were killed.

The van’s driver, 18-year-old Bryan Adasiak, and two other passengers, 19-year-old Peter Casanas and 13-year-old Melissa Shibla, escaped injury.

Police suspected the shooting was gang related because Adasiak and Casanas were members of the Ridgeway Lords street gang. Someone had thrown bricks at the van in the previous days.

Later that evening, police picked up 18-year-old William Bigeck, a member of the rival gang known as the Almighty Popes, as he walked in the neighborhood of the shooting. After first denying any knowledge of the shooting, Bigeck ultimately confessed that he was present with other members of the Popes, and that the shots were fired by 15-year-old Eric Anderson, the son of a Chicago police officer.

Bigeck said that earlier in the day, he and Anderson had burglarized the home of a police officer and stolen two loaded guns—a .357-caliber revolver and a .44-caliber revolver. Bigeck said that he and Anderson went to the home of another gang member, 17-year-old Nicholas Morfin, to show him the guns and try to sell them. When they arrived, 19-year-old Bryan O’Shea and Morfin’s cousin, 18-year-old Edward Morfin, were there as well.

Bigeck told police that Nicholas Morfin called 22-year-old Matthew Sopron and offered to sell the weapons. Sopron came to the house along with 19-year-old John Gizowski. Bigeck said that Sopron did not buy the guns and left. Bigeck said he put the .44 into a glove and stashed it at the house.

Bigeck told police that later that day, he, Anderson, O’Shea, Nicholas Morfin, Edward Morfin, and 16-year-old Nicholas Liberto went to Hale Park where they saw the van. Bigeck said Anderson fired three or four shots at the van from a distance of about 100 yards.

Within a day, police charged Bigeck, Anderson, O’Shea, Liberto, and the Morfins with the murders of Hovel and Martin, and with the attempted murders of the three people in the van who were not wounded. Both guns were recovered and ballistics testing linked the .357 to the shooting.

In September 1996, Bigeck agreed to an interview with assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Scott Cassidy. Following the interview, Bigeck agreed to plead guilty to murder and testify for the prosecution. At that time, Bigeck changed his original statement and said that the shooting was ordered by Sopron, who was the leader of the Almighty Popes. Bigeck said the order was enforced by another gang leader, 17-year-old Wayne Antusas. Sopron and Antusas then were arrested and charged with murder. Edward Morfin also agreed to plead guilty to murder and testify for the prosecution.

In July 1997, Nicholas Morfin went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court on charges of two counts of first-degree murder. The prosecution’s case was based largely on the testimony of Bigeck and Edward Morfin.

Bigeck testified that on the morning of December 14, 1995, he and Anderson broke into the home of Chicago Police Officer Doris Montejano, who lived near Hale Park, and stole .357 and .44 caliber pistols (both were loaded) and a bottle of champagne. Bigeck said he and Anderson then went to the home of a friend who they said had suggested they go to Nicholas Morfin's house because Matthew Sopron, the Almighty Popes’ leader, likely would buy the guns for the gang.

Bigeck testified that at Nicholas Morfin’s home, Anderson and Nicholas Morfin fired the guns in the basement. When they arrived, 19-year-old Bryan O’Shea and Morfin’s cousin, 17-year-old Edward Morfin, were there as well. Bigeck also testified that Nicholas Morfin called 22-year-old Matthew Sopron and offered to sell the weapons. According to Bigeck, Sopron came to the house along with 19-year-old John Gizowski. Bigeck said that Sopron did not buy the guns.

But, according to Bigeck, Sopron announced that they should “pull a roll on the Ridgeway Lords.”

Bigeck and O'Shea, who was not charged in the case, both testified that Anderson volunteered to do the shooting. Bigeck said that Sopron decided how he wanted everything done and that Sopron spoke to Nicholas Morfin separately. When Sopron left, Bigeck said that Nicholas Morfin explained that Sopron said the shooting would be done from a gangway and that Liberto and Nicholas Morfin would be in a get-away car a block away.

Bigeck testified that when he, Anderson, and Edward Morfin arrived at Hale Park, they saw the van containing Ridgeway Lords parked across the street. Anderson shot four or five times into the van, Bigeck said.

Edward Morfin testified that Anderson said he “lit up” the van.

On July 18, 1997, the jury convicted Nicholas Morfin of two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On February 2, 1998, Sopron and Antusas went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court and chose to have their cases decided by Judge Joseph Kazmierski without a jury.

The prosecution’s case relied primarily upon the testimony of Bigeck, as well as O’Shea and Gizowski, neither of whom had been charged in the case. All three essentially said that the shooting was ordered by Sopron and orchestrated by Antusas, although their accounts differed in significant details.

Sopron came to the house either at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. or 2:30 p.m., according to their testimony.

O’Shea testified that Sopron was accompanied by a friend named Don—who later testified for the defense that he was at work that day and provided records to support his testimony. Gizowski said he never saw Edward Morfin or O’Shea at the house when he was there with Sopron.

Bigeck said Sopron told them to “pull a roll,” meaning to attack the Ridgeway Lords. Bigeck said they were in the basement, and that Nicholas Morfin and Sopron went upstairs. Morfin came back down and said that Sopron wanted them to go to Hale Park and “shoot at the van through the gangway and then leave.”

During cross-examination, Bigeck said he did not implicate Sopron and Antusas in his original statement because as “leaders of the gang” they could kill him. Bigeck admitted that he had been investigated for smoking marijuana in the witness quarters at the Cook County Jail and that he had lied initially when questioned by police. He said he would have done anything to avoid the death penalty and that he hoped to be sentenced to the 20-year minimum term.

Gizowski testified that Sopron called him and said that some friends had a gun he might be interested in purchasing. Gizowski said his brother, Gene, drove him to Nicholas Morfin’s home. Sopron, Bigeck, and Anderson were there, but not O’Shea. Gizowski said he was interested in the .44, but didn’t have the money.

Gizowski said that the talk turned to the Ridgeway Lords. He said that Sopron said somebody “should take care of the neighborhood” and that meant that somebody should “light up the van.” Gizowski said he never heard Sopron tell anyone to “pull a roll.”

O’Shea said he was at the house when Sopron and Gizowski were there. He said that he heard a discussion about the guns and that at some point, the conversation turned to the Lords. Sopron said someone “should take care of the Ridgeway Lords,” O’Shea said. He said he left the house not long after that, and was not at the park at the time of the shooting.

He admitted that he gave a statement to prosecutor Cassidy on September 26, 1996—three days after he enrolled in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. He said he was addicted at the time of the shooting.

Sopron testified and admitted that he went to the house and looked at the guns. He testified that he left after saying he was not interested in them. He denied saying in any words that anyone should attack the Lords. Gene Gizowski testified as well, and said he drove Sopron to the house that day and no one said anything about attacking the Lords.

On February 9, 1998, Judge Kazmierski convicted Sopron and Antusas of two counts of first-degree murder. They were both sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In May 1998, Anderson was convicted of two counts of murder. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Bigeck and Edward Morfin were each sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In 2001, Liberto was acquitted.

That same year, while Sopron’s appeal was pending in the Illinois Appellate Court, his trial attorney, Patrick Walsh, filed a petition for a new trial. The petition was based on a recording of a conversation between Walsh and Bryan O’Shea, and an affidavit from John Gizowski. O’Shea and Gizowski claimed that prosecutor Cassidy had threatened that they would be charged with the murders unless they provided testimony incriminating Sopron and Antusas.

The petition was amended in 2002 with an affidavit from Edward Morfin asserting that he was forced to testify falsely for the prosecution. In the meantime, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the convictions of Sopron and Antusas.

At a hearing on the motion for a new trial, O’Shea and Gizowski testified that they were threatened by Cassidy. Gizowski testified that Cassidy “told me about being white. And in jail, the Popes aren’t a big number in jail. He also told me that blacks have big penises. They would love to have a virgin white ass on the deck.”

However, O’Shea’s lawyer testified that he was present for the interview and that there were no threats. Gizowski’s father, a Chicago police officer, testified that he was present during Gizowski’s interview and no threats were made.

Edward Morfin testified that although the signature on the affidavit appeared to be his, he didn’t remember signing it and had never seen it before.

In November 2003, Judge Kazmierski denied the post-conviction petition and the Illinois Appellate Court later upheld his decision.

In October 2005, Walsh and Allan Ackerman, Sopron’s appellate attorney, filed another post-conviction petition based upon a sworn affidavit from Steven Rutledge, who was serving a 70-year sentence for murder in Macomb, Illinois. Rutledge said in the affidavit that he was in prison in 1999 with Bigeck and Edward Morfin. Rutledge said he had access to a typewriter in the law library and that Bigeck asked him to type up two affidavits—one from him and the other from Edward Morfin—because Sopron “had absolutely nothing to do with the murders.” Bigeck also was upset because he thought he would be sentenced to only 20 years.

Rutledge said Bigeck wanted to trick Edward Morfin into signing the affidavit and then planned to send that affidavit to Sopron’s lawyers. Bigeck then tore up his own affidavit.

Rutledge said that he spoke to Edward Morfin, who said that what Bigeck said “was true and that [Sopron] had nothing at all to do with the murders.”

The prosecution filed a motion to dismiss in 2006. The petition was still pending in 2009 when Sopron’s lawyers filed an amended response to the motion to dismiss that included a sworn affidavit from Sandra Gizowski, John Gizowski’s mother. She said that John had died in April 2005 and that before his death, he had said on many occasions that he had testified falsely about Sopron.

She said that the day after John gave his statement, he told her that he did go to look at the guns to see about buying them. However, he told her, he never saw Sopron that day, let alone hear Sopron order anyone to shoot up the van.

In March 2010, the prosecution for the first time disclosed information to the defense that could have been used to attack the credibility of Bigeck at Sopron’s trial. The prosecution revealed that Bigeck, after he cut his deal with the prosecution, was confined to the witness quarters in the Cook County Jail. During that time, he was caught with a garbage bag containing homemade “hooch” as well as more than a dozen oranges, but was not disciplined. In addition, the prosecution disclosed that Bigeck had been disciplined for fighting and for having a slingshot in his cell. Additionally, Edward Morfin had been disciplined for having homemade alcohol in his cell.

In December 2010, the petition was denied. In July 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the decision denying the petition. In January 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear a further appeal.

In 2018, Bigeck recanted his trial testimony and said he had lied about Sopron’s involvement. Subsequently, Ackerman and Walsh met with the Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s executive staff to review the evidence the defense had amassed in the case. Ultimately, the prosecution said that the witnesses had to be heard and cross-examined.

Another post-conviction petition was filed. After numerous continuances, a hearing on the petition began on December 10, 2018 before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Joyce. Bigeck testified that he was terrified after he was arrested and put in Cook County Jail. He was 18, and since there were two murders, the case qualified for the death penalty. At the urging of his lawyer, Bigeck said, he met with Cassidy and gave a statement that did not implicate Sopron. Cassidy became angry and left the room to allow Bigeck to talk to his lawyer.

Bigeck testified that his lawyer said he had to give Cassidy more information to get a deal. When Cassidy returned and resumed the interview, he asked Bigeck to identify the leader of the Popes. When Bigeck named Sopron and Antusas, Cassidy demanded that he implicate them, Bigeck said. Ultimately, because he was “scared to death,” Bigeck said he agreed to say that Sopron had given an order to shoot at the Ridgeway Lords.

He also testified that he routinely spent time in Cassidy’s office, where he viewed pornographic websites on a computer there and once took a small bottle of alcohol from Cassidy’s office back to the witness quarters.

Bigeck said that Cassidy told him to testify that the shots were fired from a much closer distance than the 100 yards that Anderson was standing when he fired at the van. Bigeck said he couldn’t remember which gun was used in the shooting, so Cassidy told him a way to identify them in court so that he would not make a mistake.

Bigeck admitted he tricked Edward Morfin into signing the affidavit and tore up his own because he didn’t want to be viewed as a snitch.

Rutledge testified that he prepared the affidavits for Bigeck and Edward Morfin, and that both told him at the time that Sopron had nothing to do with the shooting and was innocent.

Anderson testified as well and admitted that he fired the shots. He also said that Sopron never ordered him or any other person to do so.

O’Shea testified that he was threatened by Cassidy after police officers came to his house, kicked in the door, and dragged him out. He said that Cassidy told him that unless he gave a statement implicating Sopron, O’Shea would be charged with the murders.

At the request of the prosecution, the hearing was continued to December 14, 2018. During the morning session, Rick Bueke, who was Anderson’s trial defense lawyer, testified that Anderson never said anything about Sopron during all of their conversations. James Kogut, who was Nicholas Morfin’s attorney, testified that his client never said anything about Sopron giving any order. Nicholas Morfin also testified and denied that Sopron ever ordered the shooting.

The hearing broke for lunch and the prosecution requested the hearing be adjourned to allow them to meet with the families of the victims.

On December 18, 2018, the prosecution requested that Sopron’s convictions be vacated. Judge Joyce granted the motion, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Sopron was released.

In December 2019, Sopron filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from Cassidy and other prosecutors and police officers involved in the case. Sopron also obtained a certificate of innocence and was awarded $236,095 in compensation from the state of Illinois.

In 2020, the prosecution moved to vacate and dismiss the convictions of Nicholas Morfin, whose sentenced had been reduced to 52 years, and Antusas, who was represented by attorneys Judy Royal and Greg Swygert from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions. The prosecution noted, “Because Bigeck has changed his story so often, the People cannot ascertain the truth at this point. A conviction based on perjury cannot stand.”

But in November 2020, Judge Joyce denied the motion in the case of Antusas, saying that although he agreed to vacate and dismiss the Sopron case, he did so because he didn’t believe he had a choice at the time but to grant the prosecution motion.

He said that in the interim, he had changed his mind following his own legal research. “I believe it would be yet another error…to grant [Antusas’s] petition simply because the parties agreed that it ought to be granted,” Joyce said.

Antusas’s lawyer appealed that ruling and there had been no decision by early 2021.

A few days after Joyce denied Antusas’s motion, the motion to vacate and dismiss the case of Nicholas Morfin came before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Arthur Hill. Rather than grant or dismiss the prosecution motion, Hill ordered a hearing.

On January 22, 2021, Judge Hill granted the motion, although he said he did not believe Nicholas Morfin had proved his innocence. “I do not believe Mr. Morfin has met his burden regarding actual innocence,” Judge Hill said.

However, the judge said, “In this circumstance where Mr. Nicholas Morfin has put forward allegations regarding a (constitutional) violation, and it’s not really rebutted in any direct way by the state, I am going to grant relief for Mr. Nicholas Morfin.”

Nicholas Morfin’s convictions were vacated and he was granted a new trial. The prosecution then dismissed the charges. Morfin, who was scheduled to be paroled in July 2021, was released.

On February 11, 2021, the Illinois Appellate Court signed an order dismissing the appeal in Antusas’s case and the prosecution dismissed the charges. Antusas was immediately released.

Royal told reporters that Antusas “was a teenager when he was arrested, now he’s in his 40s. He’s really a very kind, positive person, and we’re so happy that he is going to get this, that he has the freedom he so badly deserves.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/8/2021
Last Updated: 2/19/2021
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No