Mario Casciaro, who walked free after his murder conviction in the death of a 17-year-old Johnsburg teen was overturned, is feeling a new sense of vindication after a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court.
Casciaro, once convicted of first-degree murder by intimidation in the death of 17-year-old Brian Carrick, was in prison for about two years before a ruling Sept. 17 from the 2nd District Appellate Court overturned Casciaro's conviction and set him free.
On Wednesday, the Illinois Supreme Court announced it had denied the request from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office to hear an appeal on the appellate court decision.
"We felt all along that eventually a higher court would be able to see the truth," said Casciaro, 32. "Because the local circuit court has tunnel vision."
State's Attorney Lou Bianchi issued a statement Wednesday, saying he was "troubled that the Appellate Court's flawed decision, usurping the role of 12 McHenry County jurors who found Mr. Casciaro guilty after hearing all the evidence, will stand without being reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court."
Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, a prosecutor in the case who won the Republican nod for state's attorney, said he could not comment on what the next step will be.
The decision is the latest turn in a case that stymied detectives and prosecutors since Carrick's disappearance in December 2002. Carrick last was seen at the Johnsburg grocery store where he worked, which was owned by Casciaro's parents. His body has not been found.
After two jury trials – the first ended in a mistrial on an 11-1 hung jury – Casciaro was sentenced Nov. 14, 2013, to 26 years in prison.
Prosecutors' case relied heavily on the testimony of the man who said he likely threw the punch that killed Carrick, Val's Foods employee Shane Lamb. Prosecutors have said Casciaro used Lamb as the "muscle" or a "henchman" to intimidate Carrick into paying a marijuana debt.
Lamb was granted full immunity from murder charges for his testimony against Casciaro. Lamb testified that after he punched Carrick in the face and Carrick "fell down," Casciaro told him to leave, which he did, Lamb said. He later recanted the entire story in a signed affidavit, and, on a national news TV program about the case, said prosecutors told him to lie.
Bianchi and the lead prosecutor on the case, Michael Combs, vehemently have denied that allegation.
Appellate Court Justice Kathryn Zenoff wrote in her September ruling the state failed to prove Lamb committed intimidation as a principal.
Casciaro's attorney Kathleen Zellner – like Casciaro's defense at trial – pointed to another teen, Robert Render, saying he was responsible for the death. Zellner also believes the murder didn't occur in the cooler, but in the hallway leading into it. Render's blood was the only other blood found at the scene.
Render was charged years ago with concealing a homicide, but prosecutors eventually dropped the case. He since has died from a drug overdose.
"I love the Carrick family, and I pray for them, and I hope one day there is a change in the state's attorney's office and they look at the physical evidence of the case," Casciaro said Thursday.
Carrick's parents have since died, and his sister could not be reached for comment.
Casciaro learned of the court's decision late Wednesday when his sister, Joanne, called him. Reached Thursday, she said the family is elated.
"We're happy for him that it's all over and he can focus on law school in the fall," Joanna Casciaro said.
Casciaro said he has been accepted to Loyola University and hopes to become a lawyer in three years. After finishing law school, Casciaro, a Johnsburg resident, has his sights set on running for the state Legislature or local office.
"It opened my eyes," Casciaro said of his overturned conviction. "Before this all happened, I was just a businessman that paid my taxes and tried to work for myself. I want to try to help other people and make sure other families don't have to go through what we just did."