Tearful relatives appealed for clemency Tuesday for a woman they say was wrongly convicted nearly three decades ago of taking part in a macabre kidnap-for-ransom plot in which a businessman was lured from his home and buried alive.
Testifying before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in Chicago, Nancy Rish's supporters described her as a woman ensnared in an abusive relationship with the drug dealer who concocted the 1987 kidnapping of Kankakee businessman Stephen Small. They said she knew nothing of her boyfriend's plans even as he had her pick him up from the remote, wooded burial site and drive him between phone booths where he made ransom calls.
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"She doesn't have it in her to do something so horrendous," Rish's sister Lori Guimond told the panel, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
Small was a member of a prominent media family from Kankakee and a great-grandson of Len Small, Illinois' governor in the 1920s. He was buried alive in a plywood box under several feet of sand and suffocated when a crudely fashioned breathing tube running to the surface failed before a ransom could be paid.
Rish's boyfriend, Daniel Edwards, told police after his arrest that he acted alone, but he did not say that at trial as he fought to avoid the death penalty. Now, having abandoned his own appeals, Edwards has provided two affidavits stating that he alone committed the crime and concealed his plans from Rish.
Assistant Illinois Attorney General Erin O'Connell told the review board the state still firmly believes Rish was a willing participant.
"There's been some suggestion that what happened to her was horrible, but let's be more direct: Stephen Small was buried alive," O'Connell said. "He was buried alive because Nancy Rish and Danny Edwards wanted to coerce $1 million from his family."
The panel could vote within weeks. If clemency is recommended, Gov. Pat Quinn would have no deadline for a decision.
Edwards put Small in the box with water, candy bars and a light. He recorded a message from Small in which the terrified man asks his wife to deliver $1 million to his kidnapper with the plea, "It's no joke. I'm inside ... a box. Grave." Edwards played the recording into the phone during ransom calls.
Besides the affidavits from Edwards, the clemency petition details missteps by Rish's trial attorneys. It says her lawyers, to the detriment of her defense, instructed her not to testify about conversations with Edwards, including her repeated demands to know what was going on and his violent refusals.
The petition also accuses prosecutors of withholding information and misstating facts. It mentions the prosecution's assertion at trial that Rish had made the first call to lure Small from his house, even though Small's son, who first picked up the phone, told police still searching for a suspect that it was a man's voice.
In one of several victim impact letters filed with the review board, Small's son, Ramsey, now refers to Rish having made that call.
Rish's attorney, Margaret Byrne, challenged that.
"I would just like to state respectfully that the evidence does not support what Mr. Small says," she told the panel.
Members of the Small family did not attend.
Rish's son from an earlier marriage was 8 when she was arrested. Now 36 and with two sons of his own, he is hopeful.
"It's time for her to come home," he said in an interview before the hearing. "I see her being a grandmother to my children, I see her taking care of her elderly mother and just being back with her family. That's all we want."