Mario Casciaro, once convicted of first-degree murder, could now walk free after the Illinois Appellate Court overturned his verdict.
A ruling by the 2nd District Appellate Court reversed the verdict because evidence was so lacking and improbable that the state failed to prove Casciaro’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“From day number one we felt that he was innocent, and we feel vindicated,” Eugene Casciaro said of his brother’s ruling being overturned.
A jury found Casciaro, 32, guilty of murdering 17-year-old Brian Carrick. Carrick last was seen Dec. 20, 2002, at the grocery store where he worked, which also was owned by Casciaro’s parents.
Carrick’s body never was found, and he is presumed dead. He would have turned 30 years old on Sunday.
“At trial, the state emphasized the fact that Carrick’s body has never been recovered. That is as tragic as the fact that the truth has not yet come to light,” according to the ruling.
McHenry County Prosecutor Michael Combs said, “We are disappointed and we disagree with the decision, and we plan on filing an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.”
It was a case that had stymied detectives and twisted and turned at every corner. After two jury trials – the first ended in a mistrial on an 11-to-1 hung jury – Casciaro was sentenced Nov. 14, 2013, to 26 years in prison.
There were many flaws in the case, Appellate Court Justice Kathryn Zenoff wrote in her ruling.
Prosecutors scored a murder conviction on the intimidation of another and relied heavily on the testimony of the man who said he likely threw the punch that killed Carrick to convict Casciaro.
Casciaro’s appellate attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said it was the first conviction of its kind in the state, if not the country.
Shane Lamb, Casciaro and Carrick all worked at Val’s Foods. Lamb and others testified that Casciaro was dealing marijuana, and as one of his sellers, Carrick owed Casciaro drug money.
Casciaro, prosecutors said, used Lamb as the “muscle” or a “henchman” to intimidate Carrick into paying the drug debt. Lamb has a history of violence, with a trip to a juvenile correctional facility at 14 for attempted murder, but he lost his temper during a confrontation in the produce cooler. He had previously testified that after he punched Carrick in the face and Carrick “fell down,” Casciaro told him to leave, which he did, Lamb said.
Lamb was granted full immunity from murder charges for his testimony against Casciaro. He later recanted the entire story in a signed affidavit and on a national news program that aired a program about the case. He said prosecutors told him to lie.
“I want to make it clear that I had nothing to do with attacking Brian,” Lamb’s statement reads. “If he is dead, I have no knowledge where his body is located. I also want to make it clear that I have no knowledge suggesting in any way that Mario was involved in attacking Brian or disposing of his body.”
In Zenoff’s ruling, she said, “The inference that defendant’s call to Lamb was a solicitation for Lamb to threaten Carrick is not rationally connected to and does not more likely than not flow from the basic fact that defendant asked Lamb to ‘talk’ to Carrick.”
She said Lamb denied that the defendant solicited him to threaten Carrick, and denied that he intended to threaten or hurt Carrick.
“Lamb’s unequivocal testimony that defendant did not ask or tell him to threaten Carrick simply cannot be twisted to support the inference that defendant used Lamb to threaten Carrick,” Zenoff said.
Lead prosecutor on the case, Michael Combs has vehemently denied that allegation. Combs and State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi rejected Lamb’s claims, noting his statements to authorities were made in the presence of his attorney and were video recorded, and the video was turned over to Casciaro’s defense attorney.
“Why would I coach a witness, or force a witness to say something when the cameras are rolling, and in the presence of his lawyer?” Combs said at the time of Lamb’s recantation.
Added Bianchi: “Shane Lamb gave a videotaped, recorded account of the incident as it occurred in Johnsburg the day Brian Carrick disappeared. He gave a videotaped recording in our office, in the presence of his attorney, on Jan. 20, 2010. He was consistent when he testified that same way at two subsequent trials.”
Lamb was convicted earlier this year on unrelated weapons charges and was sentenced to 20 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
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 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 has since died from a drug overdose.
“We dispute entirely that that conversation occurred,” Zellner said at the appellate court hearing. “There is no evidence that phone conversation ever occurred. … Not a single person ever saw Mr. Lamb return to the store that night.”
During the trial, prosecutors called other witnesses who testified that Casciaro told them he “makes people disappear” and Carrick’s death was an accident that got out of hand.
In Zenoff’s ruling, she said the state failed to prove Lamb committed intimidation as a principal.
Physical evidence opposed Lamb’s testimony that nothing occurred in the hallway outside the cooler.
DNA analysis proved that blood spatter on the north wall of the hallway outside the produce cooler was from Carrick, the ruling stated.
Lamb’s testimony also said only he and Carrick were involved; however, blood from Render, a stock boy at the store, and Carrick was found at the scene.
“In closing argument, the state accounted for Render’s blood with the outlandish theory that he bit his fingernails,” Zenoff said.
“The point is that Lamb was willing to tailor his testimony for favors received. A witness who is promised leniency has limited credibility,” Zenoff said in the ruling.
“The physical evidence and the testimony of disinterested witnesses show that whatever happened to Carrick could not have been what Lamb portrayed.”