Saying evidence was "so lacking" and "so improbable," an appellate court on Thursday overturned the murder conviction against Mario Casciaro in the death of Brian Carrick, thus adding another chapter to the most notorious cases in Johnsburg's history.
It was not immediately clear if Casciaro, 31, a former Fox Lake resident who is serving a 26-year prison sentence, was to be released immediately or if his case would start over again with the possibility of a third trial.
Casciaro's first trial in the murder of Carrick, who disappeared in December 2002, resulted in a hung jury.
A jury convicted Casciaro in 2013 in a second trial, agreeing with prosecutors that Carrick, 17, owed Casciaro money for drugs and that Casciaro and a man named Shane Lamb brought Carrick into a grocery store produce cooler to scare him into paying. Lamb testified that he lost his temper, punched Carrick -- who fell straight back -- and was told by Casciaro to leave.
Carrick was never seen again, and his body has not been found.
In its opinion, the appellate court panel said testimony from Lamb -- who is now serving a 26-year prison term for burglary -- was unreliable and inconsistent with physical evidence, such as blood from Carrick and a man other than Casciaro and Lamb that was found in a hallway outside the produce cooler.
"The physical evidence is irreconcilable with Lamb's testimony that nothing occurred in the hallway outside the cooler," the panel wrote. "Each time Lamb told the story of how he got Carrick into the cooler, he changed and embellished it to make his role appear more threatening. Immediately after receiving immunity, Lamb said that he and Carrick 'walked' into the cooler. In a second statement to authorities, he said that he 'tossed' Carrick into the cooler. At trial, he improved his story again."
In its opinion, the appellate panel also dismissed testimony from two other witnesses as "incredible" and said prosecutors lacked evidence to hold Casciaro criminally responsible through intimidation for Carrick's death.
McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi deferred comment to Michael Combs, the lead prosecutor in both of Casciaro's trials. Combs, who is head of the criminal division at the McHenry County state's attorney's office, said prosecutors have 30 days to appeal to the state's Supreme Court, and that is what they intend to do.
"We respectfully disagree with the appellate court's opinion," Combs said.
Messages left for Kathleen Zellner, an attorney who handled Casciaro's appeal, were not immediately returned. A message sent via Facebook to Casciaro, who is being held at the Menard Correctional Center, was not immediately returned.
At his sentencing hearing in November 2013, when given the chance to make a statement of allocution, Casciaro passionately maintained his innocence.
"I am a peaceful person who has never resorted to violence in my entire life, and I cannot take responsibility for something I did not do," Casciaro told the judge before asking numerous rhetorical questions about the case. "I know the day will come when real justice will be done and we will all know the truth about Brian's disappearance. Until that day, I swear to you from the depths of my heart and soul that I did nothing to Brian."