(CHICAGO) — For the first time in years, Mario Casciaro is a free man.
Casciaro, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison in 2013 for the death of a missing Illinois teen, walked out of the Menard Correctional Center Wednesday after a state appellate court ruled that his conviction be reversed.
“It’s surreal. That’s all I can say,” Casciaro told ABC News in an interview after his release Wednesday. “We finally did it. It’s all behind us now. Let’s move forward and move on.”
A panel of judges with the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois ruled on Sept. 17 that prosecutors provided insufficient evidence to prove that Cascairo, now 32, had murdered 17-year-old Brian Carrick, saying “the evidence against defendant was so lacking and so improbable that ‘it is simply unreasonable to sustain the finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,'” and reversed the conviction.
Casciaro said now that he’s been released he wants to “be out here with his family and enjoy life.”
“I appreciate things a lot more, all the little things in life. You don’t realize how important things are until you don’t have them anymore, and once you do, you never take them for granted again,” said Casciaro.
ABC News and ABC’s Chicago station WLS-TV were there as Casciaro’s attorney Kathleen Zellner, along with his parents and his oldest sister Julia Muell, called him to deliver the good news of the reversed conviction.
Casciaro appealed his conviction after he was found guilty in 2013 of killing Carrick, whose body has never been found.
Casciaro was twice tried in connection to Carrick’s death. Casciaro’s first trial in 2012, where prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder with intimidation and unlawful restraint, ended in a hung jury and was declared a mistrial, but when he was tried a second time in 2013, he was found guilty of first-degree murder with intimidation.
The prosecution’s star witness at both trials was Shane Lamb, a five-time convicted felon with a rap sheet that included an attempted murder charge he got when he was just 14.
Lamb had also worked as a stock boy with Carrick and Casciaro at Val’s Foods in 2002. For years, he denied to authorities knowing anything about Carrick’s disappearance, but when he faced 12 years in prison on cocaine charges in 2009, he made a deal with prosecutors.
In a 2010 meeting with prosecutors, Lamb told them that on the night Carrick was last seen, Casciaro had asked Lamb to come to the store to scare Carrick into paying back drug debts he owed, according to videotape of Lamb’s meeting with prosecutors obtained by ABC News. Prosecutors characterized Casciaro as a drug dealer and Lamb as his enforcer. Casciaro admitted that he used to smoke marijuana, but denied being a drug dealer and claimed he didn’t know Lamb very well.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ “20/20″ last October, Lamb recanted his testimony, saying he lied to prosecutors and lied under oath.
“All of it was false. Every single thing … The state’s attorney set it up,” Lamb told “20/20.” “Mario is in there for 26 years for something he didn’t do.”
Combs added in his earlier statement that, “Mr. Lamb’s allegations that I coached him for an hour and then brought his attorney into the room and turned on a camera I find it hard to believe that any attorney would allow me an hour with a witness to coach him and then come in the room just as the camera is turned on. It is unworthy of belief, untrue, and too far-fetched.”
The Carrick case shocked the small town of Johnsburg. Grisly rumors began circulating that Carrick was believed to have been killed in the grocery store’s produce cooler. Investigators found blood splatter on and inside the produce cooler, as well as blood splatter in the hallway outside of the produce cooler.
DNA testing found the blood matched Carrick and Robert Render, another stock boy at Val’s Foods, who quit his job on Dec. 22, 2002, and was reported as a runaway on Dec. 28, 2002, according to court documents.
Police did charge Render with concealing a murder but then dropped the charge. Render was never called to testify at Casciaro’s first trial in 2012, and died of a heroin overdose that same year before Casciaro went to trial for a second time in 2013.
Render’s older sister Mindy Lindholm told “20/20″ in an interview last year that her brother is innocent, and said that when she asked him about Carrick’s disappearance, her brother “said he wasn’t there, and he didn’t know what happened.”
The Carrick Family and the Johnsburg Village Police Department did not return requests for comment about Casciaro’s release when reached by ABC News Wednesday.
To this day, Carrick is still considered a missing person, but is presumed dead. He would have been 30 years old.
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