For decades, Nancy Rish’s attorneys have unsuccessfully tried to wipe away her life sentence for aiding in the murder of a Kankakee businessman who suffocated after being buried alive.
Now her latest bid for freedom turns in part on the words of the very public official who’s trying to keep her locked up for helping to kill Stephen Small in 1987.
Rish’s attorneys argue that cases like hers are what Illinois legislators had in mind when they changed the law in 2015 to give abuse victims a break on their prison sentences. The measure was co-sponsored by then-state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who is now Illinois’ attorney general.
The law calls on judges handing down sentences to weigh evidence that the defendant was abused. It also allows felons to challenge punishments judges have given out if they can show their crimes were related to being abused.
Rish’s lawyers contend that she drove her ex-boyfriend Danny Edwards around as he committed the crime — designed to squeeze $1 million from Small’s family — because Edwards had threatened and abused her. Rish has long said she didn’t know what Edwards was doing as she drove him.
In an appeals court brief, the legal team pointed to an April 2015 state Senate floor debate. They noted that Republican Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon asked Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, whether the proposed law would apply as a judge sentenced a hypothetical woman who was abused and threatened by her husband before she rode in a car as he robbed a liquor store, leading to her being charged as an accomplice.
Raoul responded, “That’s exactly right, Sen. Righter.”
Three years after that exchange, Raoul was elected attorney general and inherited the Rish prosecution, which had been passed to his office because of a conflict in the Kankakee County state’s attorney’s office. His office opposes her bid for freedom after 33 years behind bars.
Attorney Steven Becker told the Tribune that Raoul’s position on the Rish case is hypocritical and “directly contrary” to his past stance.
But during an online appellate court hearing in December, Assistant Attorney General Erin O’Connell rejected the idea that Raoul’s stance had changed. O’Connell noted the distinction between the law’s call for judges to consider evidence of abuse before sentencing and the portion that allows people to challenge sentences that have been made, as Rish is doing.
O’Connell said that the statute sets “stringent criteria” for challenging a sentence that Rish hasn’t met. She emphasized the extraordinary cruelty of the crime that led to the life term and argued Rish’s lawyers have made procedural errors that should doom the appeal.
A Raoul spokeswoman declined to make the attorney general available for comment.
Small’s family has fought to keep Rish in prison. His sons wrote letters opposing Rish’s 2014 clemency request that described the psychological pain caused by their father’s death. His sons either declined to comment or could not be reached. Stephen Small’s great-grandfather, Len Small, was Illinois’ governor from 1921 to 1929.
Rish was convicted of helping with the plot hatched by Edwards, a small-time Kankakee drug dealer, to kidnap Small, the 40-year-old heir to a local media fortune. Edwards took him to a rural area and buried him in a 6-by-3-foot wooden box outfitted with an air pipe, but Small suffocated. Edwards made calls from pay phones to demand money, and police used call-tracing devices and surveillance to nab Edwards and Rish days after the kidnapping.
Edwards was convicted and sentenced to death, though his punishment was commuted to a life term by then-Gov. George Ryan — Small’s neighbor — as Illinois moved toward ending the death penalty. Rish, now 59 and an inmate at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, has maintained her innocence through more than three decades of legal losses.
Recently, her lawyers have focused on the state law change that allows abuse victims to seek new sentences if they can show, among other things, that evidence of domestic violence wasn’t presented at sentencing and likely would have swayed the punishment handed down.
Rish’s lawyers argued in Kankakee County court filings in recent years that her “unwitting participation” stemmed from Edwards’ abuse and intimidation. Edwards threatened Rish with a gun and said he would kill her and her then-8-year-old son if she did not help him with tasks she didn’t understand, her lawyers contended.
Judge Michael Sabol shot down Rish’s bid for a new sentence at a hearing in Kankakee in July 2019, finding that the evidence of abuse likely would not have changed the sentence handed down for a particularly ghastly crime. That ruling led to the current appeal.
Rish’s lawyers have argued to the appellate court that Sabol’s ruling should be overturned because the judge failed to cite any technical problem with their petition. They also dispute the finding that the evidence would not likely change the sentence. To support that, the lawyers’ appeal brief noted Raoul’s comments as a lawmaker and said they have “exactly the type of evidence warranting sentencing relief as envisioned by the legislators.”
O’Connell, from the attorney general’s office, responded in a court filing that the judge was right to dismiss the petition because Rish’s lawyers failed to prove their claims that the evidence was new and likely to change the sentence. O’Connell noted that the judge who sentenced Rish was aware of many of the abuse allegations because they were aired at trial.
O’Connell’s argument highlighted the gravity of the crime that led to the life sentence. She cited a previous Illinois Supreme Court ruling saying that “it is difficult to envision a more violent death than that suffered by Mr. Small.”