This story has been updated to reflect Judge Hanrahan’s response to our original story and to clarify some facts in the case.
A Madison man was convicted of a weapons charge this week but found not guilty of threatening a Black man and youth with a firearm during a racially charged standoff last August, despite admitting that he drew a gun on them.
An all-white jury of eight men and five women — one of whom was an alternate, and excused just before deliberations began –acquitted Paul J. Sopko, 56, on the charge of pointing a firearm at a 14-year-old black child and 22-year-old Tahjmalyk Porter, despite Sopko admitting to police that he had pulled a gun on the pair.
According to police reports, on August 6, 2017, Paul Sopko and his son Ryan Sopko, 31, were walking two dogs and stopped at an Open Pantry Gas Station on Pflaum Road. As they entered the Open Pantry, Porter was outside the Open Pantry and asked Ryan Sopko about his two dogs.
Porter told police that when he engaged Ryan Sopko in a conversation about the dogs, Ryan was aggressive with him and replied, “Get out of here with that dumb (expletive)”. Porter told police that Ryan then entered the Open Pantry and an older man, Paul Sopko, remained outside and spoke to him peacefully about the dogs.
A few minutes later, as Paul and Ryan Sopko began to return home, Porter and another person, who is a minor, followed them to the corner of Camden and Pflaum and asked if the Sopkos were racist, according to police reports. Paul Sopko told police the two black men threatened to “beat his ass” and that one of them, who Paul described as being “a large black man,” reached into his pocket. Paul told police he presumed it was to grab a weapon.
So Paul drew a gun and pointed it at Porter and the 14-year-old boy and told them he’d shoot them both. Porter said he repeatedly said, “I’ll shoot you n****rs.”
When police arrived Paul Sopko lied to the officer, saying he had a permit for the gun. However, the police officer at the scene was able to find out that Sopko did not have a valid and current permit.
Sopko was arrested for carrying a concealed firearm, and the District Attorney’s office charged him with both carrying a concealed firearm and pointing a firearm at another person. The offense was not charged as a hate crime despite the allegation of repeated racial slurs.
The Sopkos testified that Porter had threatened them months earlier and that they were afraid for their safety, which is why the elder Sopko drew his gun. Apparently, this was enough to convince the jury that he was acting in self-defense.
The trial, which concluded late on Tuesday night, has been an ordeal for the child victim, who is now 15 and goes to school outside of Madison. Throughout the process, he has had to travel into Madison to testify and participate in the hearings. Community activists have noted that he has been alone for much of the proceedings.
Judge William Hanrahan allowed the prior arrest records of Porter to be discussed during the trial but the prior arrest records of the defendant, Paul Sopko, did not get admitted. Madison365 found that Paul Sopko has a criminal history including drug and weapons charges, while Porter has about the same number of charges for battery and domestic violence.
In a statement to Madison365 in response to an earlier version of this story, Hanrahan pointed out this is not out of the ordinary.
“The law allows a very limited inquiry into prior convictions,” he wrote. “A lawyer is allowed to ask whether the witness has been accused of a crime and if the answer is yes, they may inquire as to the nature and dates of the convictions.” He went on to say that when a witness misrepresents the number of convictions, they may be asked more details about those convictions. Porter initially said he had only one prior conviction, which was not true.
Further, Hanrahan noted in his statement that both the prosecuting and defense attorneys agreed that Sopko’s previous convictions were “too old” to be relevant and did not ask for those convictions to be entered into evidence.
Also not in evidence at the trial was Ryan Sopko’s Facebook page, which is a tour through white supremacist America, including pro-confederate memes.
The courage of the 15-year-old boy, in particular, to have been a victim in this case and be able to confront such hatred in open court resonated with community activist Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, who was present at the proceedings. Flores says she has never witnessed a victim in a case being treated worse.
“The kid victim was treated so badly,” Flores told Madison365. “The way Judge Hanrahan talked about these victims when the jury was out of the room was just horrible. I was appalled. It was crazy and it was hard to watch. It was so sad for this kid to have gone through all of this by himself, to have a gun pointed at him and be called a n*****r, to have his life threatened, and to try to hold these guys accountable only to be treated like this in court. It’s so horrendously sad.”
Specifically, Flores said the judge was critical of the younger witness’s difficulty in being sworn in. She said Hanrahan said he had “never seen” someone have such difficulty understanding the swearing-in process. In his statement, Hanrahan chided the prosecution for not preparing the witness well.
“For the judge to criticize a 14-year-old because the 14-year-old doesn’t know how to be sworn in was very disheartening in thinking about whether these victims were going to get any justice in this case,” Flores said. “Maybe this kid got confused. Why is this judge criticizing this kid? No 14-year-old should know how to be sworn in.”
But Porter’s treatment at the hands of the Court didn’t seem any better. Porter has been in Cook County and Dane County jails on a probation hold, and despite being a victim in this trial, Porter was brought up to the stand to testify while handcuffed. Every witness Madison365 has spoken to about that, including veterans of legal proceedings, say they have never seen a to testify while handcuffed, and that seeing the Black man handcuffed may have unfairly lent credence to the defendant’s claims of self-defense.
In his statement, Hanrahan said Porter refused to have the handcuffs removed, but witnesses say it wasn’t that simple.
“The prosecutor chose to call his witness to the stand dressed in a jail uniform,” he wrote. “Prior to being called into the courtroom, the court instructed the bailiff to remove the defendant’s handcuffs. The bailiff attempted to do so but Porter told the bailiff that he did not want the handcuffs removed. The bailiff then informed the court and attorneys while in open court. This was noted on the record and the court allowed the defendant to testify with handcuffs on, as he had requested.”
Hanrahan’s statement refers to Porter, an African American, as the defendant; in fact he was the victim and a prosecution’s witness in this case. Further, a Dane County court reporter told Madison365 that this exchange took place during a break in the proceedings and is not reflected in the record.
Witnesses, though, said prosecutors indicated that street clothes had been prepared for Porter but that he was brought to the courtroom in his jail uniform nonetheless; when prosecutors asked to have his clothes changed, the bailiff indicated that would take a long time and Porter decided he just wanted to testify without further delay.
Both Flores and other sources say that District Attorney Ismael Ozanne should have been charged Sopko with a hate crime. Each victim testified under oath that they saw Sopko recording the incident on his phone while pointing a gun at them with his other hand. However, all of that footage has been erased from Sopko’s phone.
Sopko was found guilty of the charge of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. He will be sentenced in July for that charge. But no one Madison365 spoke to who was involved in this case, whether directly or indirectly, was satisfied with the outcome.
“It is a hate crime and he should have been found guilty,” Flores said. “He admitted to a police officer that he pointed a gun at the boys. I’m very surprised that the jury did not come back with more charges of guilt. It’s certainly disorderly conduct calling the victims the N word. These guys are white supremacists and they need to be held accountable.”
But even without the jury’s decision, Flores says the court proceedings were reprehensible.
“This kid is traumatized and the Judge talked about them like they were ignorant dogs,” Flores told Madison365. “I’m deeply saddened and frustrated but not surprised this happened in 2018 in Madison. And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of our kids being victimized and traumatized repeatedly by our system. This kid went through this grave injustice and this is his life now and his experience in court? He was brave and he had the courage to testify here. And he was treated like his life doesn’t (expletive) matter because he’s black. Black lives really don’t matter in Madison. I feel torn about raising my own black child here because he’s not safe here.”
The Sopkos were able to escape conviction of one of the charges, able to avoid being charged with a hate crime, and have a jury in a race-related case that didn’t have a single person of color on it.
“It was so hard to watch,” Flores said. “Thirteen (sic) whites decided that these young black kids didn’t matter and the Judge was okay with it.”
Hanrahan said he would recuse himself from sentencing if either party in the case felt his statement indicated partiality.