DOWNERS GROVE – Mario Casciaro said he was sitting in a concrete box when his family called to tell him the ruling in a murder case he was convicted in had been overturned.
When Casciaro, 32, stepped out of Menard Correctional Center on Wednesday after having been there for two years, it finally sunk in that he was free.
“When you can’t see the outside world, it doesn’t really sink in until you’re actually breathing fresh air,” Casciaro said Thursday as he sat in his attorney Kathleen Zellner’s office, surrounded by family. “When you’re walking out of the prison, that’s when it hits you.”
The first thing Casciaro did when he walked out was hug his parents, Maria and Jerry Casciaro.
“The greatest thing was to have known that he came out and to hug him,” Jerry said. “And I wanted to keep him that way for an hour.”
After two jury trials, Casciaro was sentenced on Nov. 14, 2013, to 26 years in prison for being convicted of first-degree murder by intimidation in the disappearance of 17-year-old Brian Carrick.
Carrick last was seen Dec. 20, 2002, at the Johnsburg grocery store where he worked, which also was owned by Casciaro’s parents. His body was never found.
Casciaro said he would tell the Carrick family that he’s “still praying for them, and I still want to help them, if possible, find out what happened to Brian.”
A ruling Sept. 17 from the 2nd District Appellate Court overturned Casciaro's conviction because it said evidence was so lacking and improbable that the state failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An order from the same court granted Casciaro’s freedom.
Casciaro said the moment he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for something he was innocent for was “unbelievable.”
“It was like a perfect storm, or a Rubik’s Cube, everything aligned correctly for the system to get me,” Casciaro said.
Through his time in prison, Casciaro said he’s heard many other stories of people who have been wrongfully convicted – something he hopes to change in the future.
Casciaro has set a five-year plan for himself. In one year, attend law school, in three years, finish law school and in five years, run for a state Legislature position to represent Lake or McHenry county.
“I think the state Legislature needs somebody that’s had my experience and my vantage point,” Casciaro said. “Somebody that’s seen the wrong side of the system really to put safeguards into the Legislature so that this doesn’t happen to the next person, and the next person and the next person.”
Casciaro said he would tell anyone else in the same situation he’s in to keep fighting and read every day.
In prison, Casciaro read the Bible twice, Black’s Law Dictionary, case law and the Illinois Blue Book. He said he never let his mind be imprisoned during his time at Menard.
Casciaro said he temporarily is living in Chicago, and plans to move to Cook or DuPage county soon.
For now, he’s enjoying everyday things, such as taking a hot shower and sleeping in a soft bed, he said.
Casciaro’s family said he looks skinnier now, something Maria plans to change soon with two fridges full of her homemade Italian cooking.
Years of missed marriages and births for his family and friends have Casciaro also looking forward to spending time with them.
“I’m even more optimistic now,” Casciaro said. “A life is such a blessing. Take advantage of every moment you can.”
After years of being seen as a guilty man by some, Casciaro said he isn’t looking back, or feeling anger or frustration about what he’s been through.
“[I’m] just looking forward,” Casciaro said. “Good times are ahead.”