In 2002, Mario Casciaro was working at his family’s grocery store in the northwest suburban village of Johnsburg when one of their teenage stock boys disappeared.
That teenager was never seen again, but a decade later, Casciaro was charged with his murder. That trial ended in a hung jury. But a second trial in McHenry County, a year later, resulted in his conviction. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
In 2015 an appellate court overturned that conviction, ruling that “the state’s evidence was unreasonable, improbable and unsatisfactory.” Within 90 days of his release, Casciaro took the LSAT law school aptitude test and in 2016 he started at Loyola Law School. He graduated last May, passed the bar exam in September, and will be sworn in as an attorney this Thursday.
Below, a Q&A with Casciaro.
What are your overall thoughts about the justice system after this experience?
Generally, I’d say we have a wonderful justice system, but it does have flaws. I was fortunate that the system corrected itself. The appellate court was able to see that the Johnsburg Police Department, McHenry States Attorney and lower court shouldn’t have charged me.
Were you always confident you’d be exonerated?
I believed at some point I’d get out, but didn’t know when.
While imprisoned at Menard Correctional Center, did you meet others you thought were innocent?
Yes. I met Matt Sopron and worked with his family upon my release. Matt was just released in January 2019 after being convicted of murder. I’d say I felt like a good 5% of people incarcerated seemed innocent.
What are your hopes for the future now that you have your law degree? What kind of law do you want to practice?
Criminal law and civil rights. In particular, I want to focus on people who’ve been wrongfully arrested or had their rights violated by the police.
You live in Chicago now, but your family still lives in Johnsburg. How do they feel about living in that small town?
It was very hard for them. They lived in that community for 30 years and their grocery store business definitely suffered because of all this. They actually recently sold their house and are moving to Addison. The moving truck is coming tomorrow.
You filed a civil suit against the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office, but you settled with them in 2017 for $50,000. Seems like a low amount, given that you’ve said this devastated your life.
It is. But it was the best way to move forward.
Yet McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally maintains that the settlement was in no way a recognition of wrongdoing. They say it was just cheaper than going forward with the trial. How are you feeling about that?
Not acknowledging culpability? Please. They had immunity. They didn’t need to settle this case. They don’t just go around giving people $50,000 if they don’t think they acted wrong.
Your case against the Police Department of Johnsburg is still pending, right?
Yes. It’s a civil suit against the village of Johnsburg, the police and the city of McHenry. It was filed in 2017. We are in the discovery phase, near the close of depositions. That means we’re sharing evidence between the parties. We hope to be in trial or settled within the first half of next year.