The following opinion by Steven Becker and Margaret Byrne was published on August 8, 2015 by the Daily Journal.
In last week's opinion piece about the petition for a new trial filed by us on behalf of Nancy Rish, Joseph Yurgine laments that "despite the need for finality of judgments ... murder cases never end" as long as the incarcerated, convicted defendant still is alive.
Let us be clear from the outset: the brutal and senseless nature of the crime committed by Danny Edwards against Stephen Small and his family cannot be overstated. The lifetime of suffering experienced by Mr. Small's loved ones is beyond comprehension. Everyone who supports Nancy Rish's bid for a new trial has profound sympathy for the Small family, as does Nancy Rish.
Yet, Mr. Yurgine's high esteem for the "finality of judgments" may not have been seen as such a worthy goal for the many hundreds of innocent people across the country who were wrongfully convicted and spent countless decades of their lives wasting away in prisons for crimes they did not commit.
More than 1,600 people have been exonerated, and the cases continue to pile up. The right of an innocent person to challenge her incarceration when new evidence becomes available necessarily takes precedence over our desire for procedural finality because, as the Illinois Supreme Court has emphasized, the imprisonment of the innocent is "so conscience shocking" as to trigger the protections of our Illinois Constitution.
Now, after more than a quarter of a century of silence and years of unsuccessful appeals, Danny Edwards, who lured Stephen Small from his home and buried him in a wooden box for the purpose of extracting ransom, has just recently provided two affidavits stating he acted alone in the crime, never told Nancy Rish about his plans, and, in fact, repeatedly lied to Nancy in an effort to actively conceal his plot from her.
This is compelling new evidence of innocence from the actual perpetrator of the crime that merits a full evidentiary hearing, where Edwards can be examined in open court by lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution.
Expanding upon his theme of finality, Mr. Yurgine further remarks that "[a]fter a person has had his day in court and has been fairly tried, there is always a proper reluctance to give the person a second trial."
The critical phrase here, however, is "has been fairly tried." In this regard, the more that Nancy Rish's case has been scrutinized throughout the years, the more it has become apparent to independent observers that she did not receive a fair trial. To borrow an old phrase, "Truth is the daughter of time."
In 1993, the Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist William Gaines writing for the Chicago Tribune found that "prosecutors eager for a conviction [in Nancy Rish's case] took full advantage of the emotional atmosphere surrounding the crime. They wove facts, half-truths, sketchy witness accounts and sheer conjecture into a compelling but deeply flawed portrait of Rish as a ruthless 'gold digger.' They ignored contradictory evidence ... and glossed over important distinctions in the law."
There was no physical evidence whatsoever linking Nancy Rish to the crime, and the state's case was entirely circumstantial. She always has maintained her innocence. Furthermore, in a recent editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times notes that "questions about the extent of Rish's participation in the crime have been swirling" ever since Gaines' investigative articles.
In addition, the Sun-Times editorial correctly opines that there would be no harm in allowing Edwards to testify based on the lingering doubts about the evidence against Nancy Rish.
Moreover, Nancy Rish's trial is unique in the annals of Illinois jurisprudence. As a result of Stephen Small's stature in the community, both the state's attorney's office and the public defender's office recused themselves from the case because of connections to the Small family.
Nancy was tried in the emotionally charged aftermath of the brutal and senseless killing of Mr. Small, followed by Danny Edwards' high-profile trial, conviction and sentence of death. At the very least, there was overreach by the prosecution.
At Nancy's trial, the prosecutor told the jury, without any evidentiary basis, that Nancy made the initial phone call to lure Mr. Small away from his home. The same prosecutor had previously alleged in Danny Edwards' trial that it was Edwards who made the call. This damning accusation, alone, could have tipped the scales against Nancy. Edwards now has admitted, in an affidavit, that he made the first call to the Small home and all of the subsequent ransom calls, as well as that Nancy was unaware he had kidnapped Mr. Small, let alone that he was making ransom calls.
Edwards is seriously ill with coronary disease. We have twice asked the court to take Edwards' deposition so that his testimony can be obtained and preserved, a request to which the office of the Illinois Attorney General has twice objected. If Edwards should die without his testimony under oath preserved for a future hearing, Nancy Rish could lose the ability to seek a new trial based upon what Edwards says.
We live in a state that has seen more than 150 exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted, most of murder, and, as of 2013, Illinois had the highest per capita rate of exonerations of any state in the entire United States. We have taken on Nancy Rish's case pro bono because we believe in her innocence.
Based upon our conversations with Mr. Edwards and other witnesses, and our review of the trial record, appeals and the independent investigations conducted since the 1990s by the Chicago Tribune and, most recently, by an award-winning local historian and author, we are convinced that Nancy Rish's trial was fundamentally flawed. If the information we now have in our possession had been presented to the jury, Nancy would never have been convicted of knowingly aiding Danny Edwards.
Simply stated, Nancy Rish should not be allowed to die in prison for a crime she did not commit. Why should she not fight for her freedom for these 28 years, and for as long as she lives? We do know that for as long as we practice law, we will work for her release.
Finality is important, but only after justice is first done.
Steven W. Becker and Margaret Byrne
Attorneys for Nancy Rish