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Family seeks woman’s freedom; Nancy Rish was convicted in 1987 kidnapping death of Stephen Small

Nancy Rish now 52 says she was wrongfully accused notorious Kankakee kidnapping case. She an accomplice were convicted death publishing

Nancy Rish, now 52, says she was wrongfully accused in a notorious Kankakee kidnapping case. She and an accomplice were convicted in the death of publishing heir Stephen B. Small. | Associated Press/Courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections

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Updated: August 10, 2014 6:18AM

Almost three decades ago, Danny Edwards buried a man alive in a plywood coffin in a field outside Kankakee.

Now, with his heart dying and his faith in God reborn, Edwards is trying to set free the woman who has spent the last 27 years in prison as his accomplice in the 1987 kidnap and murder of Kankakee media heir Stephen Small.

On Tuesday — armed with two signed affidavits from Edwards — family and friends of 52-year-old Nancy Rish pleaded her clemency case before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board meeting at the Thompson Center downtown.

“She has served 27 years in prison, her prison record is exemplary and her mother ... needs her at home,” said Margaret Byrne, Rish’s attorney. Beside Byrne sat Rish’s 84-year-old mother, who must use a wheelchair to get around and whose worst fear is that she may die with her daughter still behind bars.

“That’s why I’ve asked God, ‘Don’t take me until she’s free,’” Rish’s mother, Jenny Woodrich, said moments before the hearing got under way.

Rish, serving a life sentence at Logan Correctional Center in downstate Lincoln, insists she is innocent — something Edwards also asserts in the affidavits.

In November 1988, a jury deliberated for less than two hours before finding Rish, then 26, guilty in Small’s murder and kidnapping. The jury decided that Rish — Edwards’ live-in girlfriend — was a key part of the plan to lure Small out of his home, abduct him and bury him in a homemade box in a field about 13 miles southeast of Kankakee in an attempt to collect a $1 million ransom. Small, a politically connected 40-year-old father and businessman, suffocated when a breathing tube failed. Edwards, originally sentenced to death, is now serving a life term.

In his affidavit, Edwards insists: “I alone planned and committed the kidnapping of Mr. Small, which resulted in his unintended death.”

Edwards, who says he is a born-again Christian with chronic heart problems, wrote that he deliberately lied, hiding his murderous plans from Rish.

Byrne says Rish’s trial might have ended differently had she been allowed to testify about Edwards’ lies.

But an attorney for the Illinois Attorney General’s office, the agency that originally tried the case, on Tuesday urged the review board not to forget the jury’s guilty verdict — and the “horrible” nature of the crime.

“Stephen Small was buried alive, and he was buried alive because Nancy Rish and Danny Edwards wanted to coerce $1 million from his family,” Assistant Attorney General Erin O’Connell testified.

The four board members offered no hint of which way they may be leaning in the case, with Chairman Adam Monreal at one point only confirming with Byrne: “This was a verdict — it wasn’t a plea?”

Board member Salvador Diaz asked Byrne why it took so long for Edwards to agree to sign an affidavit defending Rish.

“He doesn’t care about Nancy!” Byrne bellowed in response, later citing Edwards’ own words that he’s found God.

The Board will make a recommendation to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has no deadline to make a decision in the case.

“I have a petition that’s been pending for four years,” Byrne said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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