Rish case in 2019: Denying (benefits from) the New Domestic Violence Statute
Written by: Dr. Lucija Sokanović
Nancy Rish was convicted of the offenses of murder and aggravated kidnaping, and was sentenced on December 19, 1988, to a term of natural life for the offense of murder and 30 years for aggravated kidnaping. The case against her was circumstantial and based on accountability, in that she was with Danny Edwards, with whom she lived, at some of the times over the course of the two days when he was in the process of carying out a kidnaping that resulted in the death of the victim, Stephen Small. She has always maintained her innocence (Becker, Byrne, 2017). Danny Edwards was convicted and sentenced to death for plotting to extort $1 million from the Smalls (Bonty, 2019). This sentence, however, was commuted to a term of natural life due to the abolition of the death penalty by Governor George Ryan in 2003. Ever since 1987, the horrifying nature and consequences of the crime have attracted the interest of both the general public and legal experts. Namely, Stephen B. Small, a wealthy resident of Kankakee, Illinois was bound, placed in a wooden box built by Edwards, and buried alive (Appellate Court of Illinois, 1991). In addition to Small’s body, the box contained a light connected to one of two automobile batteries, a one-gallon jug of water, candy bars, gum, a flashlight, and PVC piping that came up out of one end of the box (Idem.). The cause of death was determined to be “asphyxia due to suffocation” (Ibid.).
Nancy Rish has now been in prison for three decades for a crime that she did not commit, as she has continuously repeated throughout the years. In July 2019, a Kankakee County judge, Michael C. Sabol, granted the People’s motion to dismiss the petition for relief from judgment. This decision, particulary with respect to the facts presented by Rish’s attorneys, deserves careful legal analysis. Namely, Illinois Public Act 099-0384 amended Illinois law to take into account the effects of domestic violence on a defendant in a criminal case as follows. “First, the Act amended the Unified Code of Corrections to allow courts to consider domestic violence as a mitigating factor at sentencing, providing that: ‘[T]he following grounds shall be accorded weight in favor of withholding or minimizing a sentence of imprisonment: … (15) At the time of the offense, the defendant is or had been the victim of domestic violence and the effects of the domestic violence tended to excuse the defendant’s criminal conduct.’ 730 ILCS 5/5-5-3.1(a)(15). Second, the Act amended the Code of Civil Procedure section relating to petitions for relief from judgment to provide a mechanism for resentencing if domestic violence evidence was not presented at the defendant’s sentencing hearing, providing that: ‘A movant may present a meritorious claim under this Section if the allegations in the petition establish each of the following by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) the movant was convicted of a forcible felony; (2) the movant’s participation in the offense was related to him or her previously having been a victim of domestic violence as perpetrated by an intimate partner; (3) no evidence of domestic violence against the movant was presented at the movant’s sentencing hearing; (4) the movant was unaware of the mitigating nature of the evidence of the domestic violence at the time of sentencing and could not have learned of its significance sooner through diligence; and (5) the new evidence of domestic violence against the movant is material and noncumulative to other evidence offered at the sentencing hearing, and is of such a conclusive character that it would likely change the sentence imposed by the original trial court.’ 735 ILCS 5/2-1401(b-5)” (Becker, Byrne, 2017).
Deciding the case on July 26, 2019, the presiding judge ruled that the final, fifth element was missing: “As to the final element, the petitioner must plead the evidence of domestic abuse is so conclusive that had it been presented it is likely it would have changed the sentence imposed by the original trial court. And I find that the petitioner has failed to do so as her petition does not allege facts sufficient to show the new evidence of domestic violence against the petitioner is of such a conclusive character that it would likely change the sentence imposed by the original trial court” (Proceedings, 2019). Argumentation of the presiding judge was, in fact, a reiteration of the statutory norm without reasoning or an evaluation of presented facts. In my next paper, I will present legal views as to why I find this decision to be a denial of the New Domestic Violence Statute.
Appellate Court of Illinois, Third District. (1991). People v. Rish. Case Summary.
Becker, S.W., Byrne, M. (2017). Petiton for Relief from Judgment pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2-1401(b-5).
Bonty, J. (2019). Rish’s attorneys argue for her to be resentenced. Daily Journal.
Proceedings in the cause of People of the State of Illinois vs. Nancy Rish (2019). No. 87 CF 321. The Circuit Court of the 21st Judicial Circuit, Kankakee County, Illinois.