Stephen Small murder: Nancy Rish can appeal life sentence for burying alive media heir 1987

Nancy Rish was serving life for the 1987 kidnapping and murder of media heir Stephen Small and this is the first time that she can appeal her sentence

                            Stephen Small murder: Nancy Rish can appeal life sentence for burying alive media heir 1987
Nancy Rish is serving life for the 1987 kidnapping and murder of media heir Stephen Small along with ex-boyfriend Danny Edwards (Illinois Department of Corrections)

KANKAKEE, ILLINOIS: The Illinois appeals court has determined that a woman who was convicted of kidnapping a businessman and killing him by burying him alive in 1987 will be allowed to appeal her life sentence, news outlets revealed on Monday, July 26.

In other news of life sentence appeals, Aaron Campbell, the teen rapist, and killer of Alesha MacPhail who was sentenced to life in prison this past February reportedly lodged an appeal last May to have his sentence reduced. Murderer of George Floyd and cop Derek Chauvin's plan to appeal could backfire and could end him up with an extended sentence compared to his original one of 22.5 years. In a strikingly similar incident from last year, a Tennessee man who murdered his wife in front of their 2-year-old said he was subjected to domestic abuse. 


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Nancy Rish, 59, who was serving a life sentence for the 1987 kidnapping and murder of Stephen Small, a Kankakee businessman who died of suffocation after being buried alive, requested a resentencing hearing in December 2017 so that the court might consider evidence of domestic violence.

Her lawyers claimed that ex-boyfriend Daniel Edwards forced her to drive him and that she was unaware of his kidnapping plan. If the state tries to appeal the ruling, the appellate court ruled in Rish's favor on Thursday, requesting a new judge who has not previously decided on Rish's case, the Chicago Tribune reported. Rish and her then-boyfriend, Danny Edwards, kidnapped Kankakee media heir Stephen Small and buried him in a plywood box as they awaited a ransom payment.

Rish was found guilty of assisting Edwards, a small-time Kankakee drug dealer, in the abduction of Small, the 40-year-old heir to a local media wealth. Small suffocated after Edwards brought him to a rural region and buried him in a 6-by-3-foot wooden box with a breathing tube running to the surface, which failed. Edwards used payphones to make money demands and police utilized call-tracing devices and surveillance to catch him.

Daniel Edwards (Kankakee County Sherriff)

Nancy Rish claims she is 'not guilty, never was'

“This is the first time in 33½ years that she’s gotten a ruling that may result in her sentence being reduced from natural life,” Margaret Byrne, a private attorney who is defending Rish pro bono with Steven Becker, stated. After a jury trial in 1988, Rish was sentenced to life in prison. Edwards was convicted and sentenced to death, but then-Gov George Ryan, Small's neighbor, commuted his sentence to life in prison as Illinois headed toward abolishing the capital penalty. 

Edwards allegedly abused Rish and threatened to kill her and her son if she did not comply with his scheme, according to Rish, who is now an inmate at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. She also maintains she had no idea about Edwards' plans. Since her trial in 1988, she has maintained her innocence, declaring on the day of her sentencing, "I just want to say I am not guilty of these charges, never was."

Rish was raised in a household where her father was an alcoholic who physically and mentally assaulted Rish's mother, according to the petition. Becker and Byrne now have the opportunity to appeal her life sentence, the Daily Mail reported. A reform in the legislation in 2015 permits convicted offenders to appeal their sentences if they can show that their crimes were committed as a result of domestic violence.

Nancy Rish (Kankakee County Sherriff)


What happened to Stephen Small?

Small was the son of Burrell L Small, the former publisher of The Daily Journal of Kankakee and president and chairman of the Mid America Media Group, a broadcasting corporation that included 11 radio stations and two cable television stations.

On September 2, 1987, kidnappers posing as police officers led Small to a building he was refurbishing, stating the building had been broken into. At around 3.30 am, the kidnappers called Small's wife, Nancy Small and demanded the money. The family got five phone calls from the kidnappers and was eager to obey their demands, but they were unable to interpret the tape-recorded message telling them where to leave the money.

Edwards buried the businessman in three feet of sand in a handcrafted wooden box with an air pipe and provisions for water and light in the Kankakee, Illinois forest, but Small died soon after. Before and after Small's kidnapping, Rish, who was 26 at the time, drove Edwards around. She was sentenced to life and 30 years for her involvement in the murderous crime, before which she said in an emotional statement: 

"'I am very sorry for what happened, for what I was associated with. I told the truth . . . at times when I did lie, I admitted it, but then I watched as the officers one by one got up there, under oath and they lied. To get a conviction the way they did is very, very unfair."

'She's a good person'

Rish's motion had been denied by a Kankakee County judge, who said she had failed to submit proof of domestic abuse that would likely 'alter the sentence issued by the initial trial court.' The case was reinstated by the appeals court on the grounds that the lower court should not have decided Rish's case on the facts, but rather on whether her petition was properly submitted. Her case has been reassigned to another judge.

“She’s a good person. She’s moral. She’s honest. She’s decent, and this guy was a conniving drug dealer who was looking to make money quickly,” Byrne said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “The domestic abuse that she suffered throughout her life, including Edwards, is highly relevant.”

“We really do not want to lose sight for one second of the suffering of the Small family. Nancy is very aware and says she prays for them every day,” Byrne said. “The family suffered unspeakably and it was Edwards’ sole fault.”

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