CHICAGO -- Amid the commercial billboards along the Stevenson Expressway, a smaller wooden sign sticks out: Free Matt Sopron, it reads.
Supporters of another inmate who's in prison for the 1991 murder and armed robbery of a gas station attendant in downstate Bloomington have passed out "Free Jamie Snow" wristbands to focus attention on his efforts to get DNA testing to help prove his innocence.
And backers of John Horton use social media to inform the public about the Rockford man's efforts to unravel his conviction.
Once rare occurrences in the criminal justice system, reversals of wrongful convictions have become so commonplace that inmates and their advocates are finding it more and more difficult to make their voices heard.
Even as many prosecutors become more receptive to innocence claims and organize units to review potential wrongful convictions, prisoners at the center of most cases are nearly anonymous as they hope that their court fights might capture the public's attention and add pressure to authorities considering their claims. Rare indeed is the case that becomes the popular podcast "Serial" or the documentary "Making a Murderer."
As a result, inmates and their supporters are getting creative while their cases remain in the courts.
"There's an innocent man that's been in prison his whole life. The best way we can help him is to let people know what's happening," said Lou Plucinski, a Sopron cousin who erected the 40-by-30-foot sign at his scrap metal recycling yard on the north side of the Stevenson. "We hope people will see it and say, 'Hey, I might be able to help.'"
Whether such efforts work is an open question. Ultimately, prosecutors and judges make the key decisions in post-conviction cases.
But Allan Ackerman, a veteran defense attorney who has represented Sopron since 1998, not long after the then-teenager was convicted at trial of murder, believes the public appeals do make a difference.
"The effort provides the public with a visual approach to an often broken system in Cook County and elsewhere," he said.
Tara Thompson, a lawyer at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School who represents Snow, agreed.
"What we do as lawyers in court is separate from what people do to educate themselves about wrongful convictions," she said. "It's important for people who are innocent to be able to tell the public what's going on in their case. It's important for their supporters who want to make sure the cases aren't forgotten to know that effort helps."
The number of exonerations has climbed steadily since 1989, the year of the first DNA exoneration. Last year the total reached 149, representing a new high, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project from the University of Michigan Law School.
Sopron, now 42, was one of six men convicted in the 1995 murders of two friends, Helena Martin and Carrie Hovel, both 13, on Chicago's Southwest Side. The girls were sitting in the rear of a van when a gunman approached and opened fire.
Cook County prosecutors alleged that gang members targeting rivals mistakenly shot the two eighth-graders.
Sopron, the gang's alleged leader, was accused of ordering the shooting. But court documents filed in his appeals in state and federal court contend many of the witnesses recanted their testimony, saying they lied in court after they were pressured to testify against Sopron by Chicago police and prosecutors.
"Beyond any doubt, here is somebody who is innocent," Ackerman said.
The Illinois Appellate Court, though, has rejected Sopron's appeals, saying the witnesses' recantations were not credible.
The state's attorney's office's Conviction Integrity Unit notified Ackerman nearly four years ago that it was reviewing the case. But the status of that review is unclear. A spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office did not respond last week to questions about the review.
The lack of news from prosecutors prompted Sopron's mother, Patricia, to organize efforts to draw attention to the case. The family has set up a website, www.freemattsopron.com, and an online petition with more than 2,000 signatures asking State's Attorney Anita Alvarez for an update on her office's review of the case.
Sopron came up with the idea of the expressway sign. Plucinski, who as a youth was close friends with Sopron, put it up.
"It seems like media attention can help with these overturns," Plucinski said. "So we asked ourselves how we could stir up media attention."
The Illinois Department of Corrections denied the Chicago Tribune's request to meet with Sopron, even though he had agreed to an interview.
Jamie Snow's supporters have been creative in their efforts. Snow's daughter sent the Tribune a note in a bottle -- what she called "my version of a message in a bottle." Supporters have gathered in a Bloomington park every year for the past five years to write and address postcards to reporters in the hope of drawing attention to Snow's case. They have also rallied in front of the McLean County Courthouse.
Snow's case remains active on two fronts -- a motion seeking DNA testing of several pieces of evidence in the McLean court and an appeal of his conviction in federal court.
"We want everybody there to know that the prosecutor is opposing DNA testing, even though we'd pay for it," said Tammy Alexander, a supporter.
Alexander, a project manager at a Tennessee university, said she read about Snow's case online about seven years ago, and "it just didn't look good." She wrote to Snow in prison and he replied. Since then, she has helped search for evidence and coordinated public efforts.
While people have rallied to Snow's cause, he remains at the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center serving a life sentence. That has left Alexander feeling frustrated. She and others hoped the publicity in McLean County would prompt someone with information to come forward.
The frustration is especially keen as she hears about other inmates being exonerated. Illinois has the third most exonerations in the U.S., with 160, behind only New York and Texas, according to the exonerations registry.
"Everybody's in the same boat, so it's almost a competitive thing that you have to compete for attention on this," Alexander said. "You're happy for other people, but you wonder why can't that happen to us?"
Melissa Markise got involved in John Horton's case quite by accident. Not long after he went to prison two decades ago, he called a cousin. The cousin was married to Markise's best friend, and Markise was at the house when Horton called. She, too, spoke to Horton.
"It just kind of blossomed from there," Markise said.
As she learned details of the case, she was troubled. Horton had been convicted in 1995 of a murder and robbery two years earlier at a Rockford McDonald's. But Horton's cousin, in prison for another murder, has said repeatedly he committed the crime alone.
Over time, Markise has become more deeply involved in the case -- and with Horton. Now his fiancee, she built a website and files posts on social media.
She hopes Horton's innocence claims will bring results in court, but so far they have not. Horton, who was a teen at the time of the crime, is serving a life sentence at the Menard Correctional Center.
"It's difficult to get a mass following for these things," said Horton's lawyer, Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project. "But these are people who are trying to advocate for people they love."
Sopron's mother, meanwhile, continues to hope the efforts on her son's behalf will resonate with prosecutors or the courts. Visits to the website have increased, she said, and the petition has been forwarded to the state's attorney's office. With Alvarez's defeat in last week's Democratic primary, she hopes the next state's attorney will view the case with a fresh perspective.
"We will never go away, never ever give up our fight to save Matt's life," she said.