CHICAGO — It was a heinous crime: a businessman seized from his eastern Illinois home, buried alive in a plywood box in the woods outside Kankakee and left to suffocate when a crude breathing tube failed before a ransom could be paid.
Nearly three decades later, one of two people imprisoned for life in the killing of Stephen Small is making a bid for freedom.
Nancy Rish says she was trapped in an abusive relationship with the small-time cocaine dealer who plotted the botched kidnapping of the 40-year-old scion of a wealthy family that owned newspapers and broadcast stations. She says she knew nothing of what he was up to on that night in September 1987 and was threatened at gunpoint for demanding an explanation as he forced her into the role of unwitting accomplice — details that never came out in her trial.
“She was convicted because she was his girlfriend,” said attorney Margaret Byrne, who began assembling a clemency bid this year after hearing of Rish’s story from another prisoner. “To read the (trial) transcript is so painful, because there isn’t any direct evidence against her. ... It’s strictly circumstantial evidence based on her being associated with him.”
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board will hear the petition Tuesday in Chicago and could vote in a matter of weeks.
The petition accuses prosecutors of misstating facts and other misconduct and cites egregious missteps by Rish’s own lawyers. The attorney she first contacted after her arrest failed to disclose he was a friend of the Small family and allowed days of police questioning in which Rish made false and inconsistent statements that were used against her in court.
The petition also includes affidavits from Daniel Edwards, who, having abandoned his own appeals, states that he alone committed the crime and actively concealed his plans from Rish, even as he built the coffin-like box in their garage.