Woman serving life sentence for 1987 buried-alive killing of Kankakee media heir gets renewed chance at freedom

The Illinois appeals court overturned a lower court Thursday, allowing Nancy Rish to continue to challenge her sentence. She claims she was forced into the kidnapping and murder of Stephen Small because she was a victim of domestic abuse.

SHARE Woman serving life sentence for 1987 buried-alive killing of Kankakee media heir gets renewed chance at freedom
Nancy Rish is escorted into the Kankakee County courthouse for her trial in 1988.

Nancy Rish is escorted into the Kankakee County courthouse for her trial in 1988.

Sun-Times file

A woman serving a life prison term for her role in kidnapping and burying alive a Kankakee businessman in 1987 can go forward with her attempt to challenge her sentence, according to an Illinois appeals court ruling Thursday.

Nancy Rish, 59, says she was forced to participate with her boyfriend Danny Edwards in the kidnapping of Stephen Small because Edwards abused her and threatened to kill her. She claims she didn’t know what Edwards was intending to do.

In an attempt to get Small’s family to pay a $1 million ransom, Edwards buried the businessman in a wooden box equipped with an air pipe —but Small suffocated. Rish drove Edwards around before and after Small was kidnapped.

Small was an heir to a media fortune and the great-grandson ofLenSmall, Illinois governor from 1921 to 1929.

Nancy Rish.

Nancy Rish.

Illinois Department of Corrections

Since 2017, Rish’s attorneys, Steven Becker and Margaret Byrne, have been trying to get the courts to reduce her sentence based on a 2015 change in state law.

The change allows people convicted of felonies to challenge their sentences if they can prove their crimes were linked to being domestic abuse victims.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul co-sponsored the change in the law when he was a senator, but his office has opposed Rish’s request for a new sentencing hearing, saying her life term was based on the “horrific nature of the crime in which [she] played an integral part.”

A Kankakee County judge threw out Rish’s request for a new sentencing hearing, saying she failed to show evidence of domestic violence that would likely “change the sentence imposed by the original trial court.”

But on Thursday, the Illinois appeals court reinstated Rish’s case, finding the lower court judge erred.

The lower court shouldn’t have judged the facts of her case, but simply whether her petition was properly filed, according to the appeals court, which has assigned Rish’s case to another judge.

The appeals court added: “Here, defendant’s petition clearly alleges that no domestic violence evidence was presented at the sentencing hearing and the attached affidavits and exhibits support that allegation.”

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