CHICAGO — Inmates Wayne Antusas and Nicholas Morfin have been approaching a potential turning point in their criminal cases — a chance to go before judges and argue their innocence in a 1995 double murder.
The evidence has shifted in the decades since their convictions for helping to plan the gang shooting on Chicago’s Southwest Side. A key witness has changed his testimony to say the men weren’t involved, the admitted shooter has said there was no plan for the attack, and prosecutors already have dropped charges against a man who had been accused of ordering the killings.
But now it’s unclear whether Antusas and Morfin will have their hearings, previously set for May, anytime soon. Innocence claims such as theirs are among the many legal matters potentially delayed by the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that has brought the Cook County court system to a virtual halt while also elevating the danger of sitting in prison or jail.
Last year, Illinois led the nation in exonerations with 30, and the state has cleared more than 300 convicts over the last three decades, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Now with the coronavirus gaining a foothold in the Cook County Jail and the state prison system, prisoners who may have been wrongfully accused or convicted could remain stuck behind bars and in harm’s way, just like the guilty.
Neither Antusas nor Morfin is at a prison that has yet reported a case of COVID-19, but their attorneys worry it may be only a matter of time. Antusas’ sister, Nicole Loye, worries for her brother and her parents, who she said are in poor health.
“He deserves his freedom, and it feels like if he gets (the coronavirus), that’s my worst nightmare,” she said as she wept. “I don’t even know when my brother will be back in court, if he even makes it, or if we even make it.”
Along with largely shuttering the courts, the pandemic has made it hard to even investigate claims of innocence, lawyers said.
While some forms of legal work transition easily to a home office, attorneys noted that innocence claims often depend on interviews and other kinds of shoe-leather work that is now nearly impossible.
Attorney Joshua Tepfer represents some of the many people who have alleged they were railroaded by former Chicago Detective Reynaldo Guevara. More than a dozen convictions related to Guevara have been tossed since mid-2016 amid accusations that he framed and coerced suspects during his time on the force.
Tepfer, of the Exoneration Project at University of Chicago Law School, said he’d been preparing for an expanded review of cases involving Guevara, hoping to see even more people freed.
But now, Tepfer said, “We can’t talk to these witnesses, we can’t do anything on these cases, we had a lot of clients who finally might have had their hopes up.”
Prosecutors are still reviewing “dozens” of cases related to either Guevara or criminally convicted former Sgt. Ronald Watts, said Aviva Bowen, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Bowen said that prosecutors are doing as much as they can from home and “urgently and thoroughly reviewing matters on a case-by-case basis, including cases presented for emergency bond hearings as well as petitions seeking compassionate release during this unprecedented crisis.”
Questions of guilt and innocence aside, public debate and court battles continue to rage over how the justice system should protect inmates. Lawyers have filed several lawsuits, including class-action litigation against Gov. J.B. Pritzker seeking transfers to home detention or release.
As of Tuesday, there had been 95 confirmed cases among inmates at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, and two — both convicted murderers — had died. Across the system, officials had reported 180 confirmed cases among inmates or staff.
Meanwhile, the first Cook County Jail inmate died Sunday, apparently of the virus, and more than 200 detainees there had tested positive by this week.
Both Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and officials with the Illinois Department of Corrections have said they are doing all they can to safeguard those in their custody, as state and local officials work to clear cell blocks of those who are most at-risk for contracting a serious case of COVID-19.
Antusas and Morfin were convicted of plotting a gang-related shooting in the Clearing neighborhood a quarter-century ago that killed two 13-year-old girls, Carrie Hovel and Helena Martin.
Authorities alleged that the participants, members of the Almighty Popes street gang, had killed the girls while trying to attack members of the rival Ridgeway Lords with one of a pair of guns stolen in a burglary earlier in the day. Morfin has acknowledged that the assailants had been at his home before the shooting and a stolen gun was fired there before the attack. Testimony also indicated that Morfin helped scratch serial numbers off of the guns.
One of the defendants, William Bigeck, testified that Morfin and Antusas had helped plan the attack while another man, Matthew Sopron, had ordered it, court records show.
But Bigeck eventually recanted in prison, and Sopron claimed innocence. At a 2018 hearing in Sopron’s case, Bigeck said he’d lied to spare himself the death penalty.
Convicted triggerman Eric Anderson, meanwhile, testified that he fired to impress his friends while his adrenaline was pumping. Anderson has signed a sworn affidavit saying that neither Sopron nor Morfin nor Antusas helped make any plan.
Prosecutors dropped Sopron’s case.
Lawyers for Antusas and Morfin argue that their clients should go free based on the new evidence, but it is unclear when they’ll get to make that case before a judge. Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans has pushed back nearly all proceedings until at least May 18.
To be sure, the reopening of criminal cases be stressful for the families of victims, and Tom Hovel, Carrie’s father, said he’s tired of endless court proceedings. He voiced skepticism of the claims of innocence, and said it’s the responsibility of state officials to protect people inside prison walls, even from COVID-19.
“It is what it is. They were found guilty by their own peers and they were told on by their own gang members,” he said.
Prosecutors have responded to Antusas’ efforts with procedural arguments rejecting the claim that he had new evidence likely to clear him. And they filed a general denial of Morfin’s claims and challenged his attorney to meet the burden of proving them.
Neither Antusas nor Morfin is at the state’s hardest-hit prison, Stateville, but there are pending innocence claims from inmates there.
John Galvan is serving a life sentence for arson and murder in a 1986 fire that killed two young men. He and his co-defendants were arrested nine months after the blaze, but Galvan alleges that he was beaten into signing a false confession.
He won a hearing after years of legal wrangling, and an expert testified that the fire could not have started the way Galvan’s confession said it did. In addition, evidence surfaced that not long before the fire, a woman in the neighborhood had threatened to burn that building down in an apparent attempt to “get even” with one of its residents.
Several witnesses testified that the same detective who allegedly beat Galvan had also physically coerced them into confessing.
But Cook County Judge Timothy Joyce rejected the innocence claim. He found the witnesses were not credible, and he said that Galvan was not believable, as the details of his claims changed between his trial and the later hearing.
Galvan’s hopes were revived, however, when a state appellate court reversed Joyce, noting that the inmate had presented “strong evidence of actual innocence.” The court ordered further hearings at which Galvan and a co-defendant, Arthur Almendarez, could again attempt to get their convictions thrown out.
Since then, Galvan’s attorneys have tried — so far, unsuccessfully — to have him released on bail. While county criminal courts are largely shut down, they have asked the state Supreme Court to instruct appellate judges that they have the authority to give him a bond.
His mother, Linda Flores, said he told her that members of the National Guard came by recently to squirt sanitizer onto inmates’ hands. She added that he has to see medical personnel for an infection in his leg, and he has developed a cough. His lawyers were unaware of whether he’d been tested for the coronavirus.
Flores worries for her son constantly, she said.
“Sometimes he’ll call me, every other day or so. … And in his voice I can tell, I mean, he says he’s OK but you know he’s worried,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s going to get the virus, not be able to prove his innocence and come home.”
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