By: Mark Fitzgerald Chicago Tribune series says convicted accomplice was railroaded in 1987 murder of media heir Stephen Small sp.
A CHICAGO TRIBUNE investigation concludes that the convicted accomplice in the 1987 kidnapping and murder of media heir Stephen B. Small was railroaded. In a two-part series published Oct. 19 and 20, reporters William Gaines and Paul Weingarten suggest that Nancy Rish wrongly was convicted of a role in the gruesome crime. Small was a member of a prominent Illinois publishing and broadcasting family when he was kidnapped from his Kankakee, Ill., home Sept. 2, 1987, placed in a box equipped with a useless airpipe and buried under three feet of sand in a remote wooded area. Authorities concluded that he died of suffocation within a few hours. He was 40. A small-time drug dealer, Daniel J. Edwards, then 30, was arrested in the case. He confessed to the crime and led police to the burial spot much too late to save Small. Edwards was convicted and sentenced to death in May 1988. Rish, his live-in girlfriend, denied involvement in the incident throughout her trial but was convicted in October 1988. She was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. "Now, six years later [since the crime]," Gaines and Weingarten wrote, "a Tribune investigation shows that prosecutors eager for a conviction 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 that could have affected a jury's decision, and they glossed over important distinctions in the law. "But Rish faced not only skilled prosecutors. There was also the rage and revulsion of a small town confronting a monstrous crime against one of its leading citizens ? and the vast, subtle influence of its most powerful family," the Tribune reporters wrote. Small was a member of the broadcasting side of the Small media family. His aunt, Jean Alice Small, is chairman of Small Newspapers Inc., which publishes the Kankakee Daily Journal and six other daily papers and eight weeklies in the Midwest and California. The Tribune articles provide just one specific example of how the "vast, subtle influence" of the Small family affected Rish's trial. "As the Rish and Edwards trials drew near," the reporters wrote in the second article, "the influence of the Small family exerted itself in an unexpected way. Lawyers began bailing out." According to the Tribune, the Kan-kakee County State's Attorney, the head of the county Public Defender's Office and all assistant public defenders recused themselves from the case, citing personal or business relationships with the Smalls. Some of their rationales for withdrawing from involvement were far-fetched, the article suggested. Jean Alice Small said the idea that her family influenced the case was "probably the most upsetting" part of the series. "The jurors were all from Rock- ford . . . so they wouldn't know much about [the] family," said Small, who also is editor and publisher of the Daily Journal. Emphasizing that she could not speak for her entire family, Small said, "I feel if there is any important evidence at all that she got an unfair trial, it should be looked at. "Being the wife of a lawyer and the mother of a lawyer [Small Newspapers president Len R. "Rob" Small], I want our system to work," she added. An Oct. 20 Daily Journal article about the Tribune series paraphrased the prosecutor in the case, Michael Ficaro, as saying, "This story . . . should have had 'opinion of the writer' as a parenthetical note underneath it." In the article written by Daily Journal managing editor Phil Angelo, Ficaro objected to what he said was the implication that the jury was influenced by the town. Tribune reporter Gaines said the story did not suggest that the Smalls influenced jurors or did anything improper during the trial. "We don't see them doing anything absolutely active, interfering in this thing," he said. Instead, Small family ownership of the local newspaper ? and, at the time, a local radio station ? contributed to the climate that denied Rish a fair trial, Gaines said. He noted that the Tribune articles could have mentioned that Small-owned newspapers endorsed judges for election in Kankakee and Ottawa, where the appeals court sits, and that some witnesses who wanted anonymity were questioned by police in the Daily Journal office. Small said she did not remember those interrogations but if they happened, they did not reflect an attempt by her family to influence the investigation. Just before Edwards' trial, Small wrote a signed editorial making clear the relationships between the newspaper-owning Smalls and the Smalls with broadcast and cable interests. The editorial also noted that she would be a witness at the trial because Edwards made a threatening phone call to her. "Despite this situation, the Journal has made and will continue to make every effort throughout the trial to maintain the highest levels of professional standards," she wrote. The Tribune investigation was aimed not at the Small family's influence but at what the newspaper said was a prosecution that "twisted testimony, glossed over key facts and ignored contradictory evidence to build the case against Rish." For instance, the articles said prosecutors in Edwards' trial said he impersonated a police officer in a phone call to lure Small from his home. However, in their closing argument at Rish's trial, prosecutors said Rish ? "sweet-talking Nancy, the spider to the fly" ? made the call. In closing arguments, lawyers cannot state facts that are not introduced during the trial. However, Rish's attorneys did not object to that statement. In the Tribune articles, one defense attorney said, "We were so shocked, we didn't think to object." The articles also said there are reasons to doubt a string of witnesses who testified that they saw Rish, or a blond woman resembling Rish, helping Edwards buy materials for the kidnapping and helping him case Small's home. Edwards has maintained that his girlfriend knew nothing of his kidnapping plans. However, Edwards, whom Gaines described as a "schizophrenic or a sociopath," also has maintained that there were accomplices in the crime and that a drug dealer forced him to kidnap Small. Virtually no one believes those claims, Gaines said. Rish's family has hired a new attorney, who intends to seek a new trial, the Tribune articles said. Her previous appeals have been denied. ?( The Chicago Tribune played the series across the top of the front page, just below the nameplate.) [Photo & Caption]