Jackson County court employee who helped free innocent man deserved better

08/05/2013 7:10 PM

08/05/2013 7:10 PM

The price for obtaining justice can be high, as an employee at the Jackson County Circuit Court found in a recently resolved criminal case. In an ironic twist, Sharon Snyder, a veteran at the court, lost her job because she violated rules to help free a wrongly convicted felon.

Given the gravity of the wrong she assisted in correcting, the penalty she received was too severe. Court rules provide a range of disciplinary actions, including suspension and demotion. Snyder should not be the scapegoat for failures in the criminal justice system that occurred before she became involved.

Snyder’s role in the case is compelling. She saw a convict who had a chance to be absolved of a crime he had long contended he did not commit. She was familiar with the legal procedure he needed for DNA testing to determine whether his conviction was flawed. Her action helped prevent him from serving additional time in prison for a crime he was found not to have committed.

Indeed, Snyder’s decision aided authorities who used DNA evidence to identify two other suspects in the crime. Eventually, true justice could be accomplished in this case.

The offender aided by Snyder was 49-year-old Robert Nelson. He faced a bleak future before her involvement. It is easy to assume, based on an Associated Press story published in The Kansas City Star, that Nelson might have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

In 1984 he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for forcible rape. That was in addition to five years for forcible sodomy and 15 years for robbery not related to the other convictions.

But Nelson persisted in denying the rape and pursuing DNA testing. His first attempt to obtain an examination in 2009 was turned down by Judge David Byrn on grounds his motion was improperly drawn. Byrn denied Nelson’s second try in 2011.

Snyder assisted Nelson on his third quest. She provided a copy of a motion that had been approved in another DNA-related case. A motion Nelson filed in February of last year was sustained. The testing cleared him of the rape and he was released from custody in June.

Snyder’s role, however, displeased the judge. The AP quoted Byrn as saying Snyder’s participation was “clearly improper and a violation of Canon Sevenwhich warns against the risk of offering an opinion or suggested course of action.’’

Byrn pointed out in a letter to Snyder that the document she provided was “your recommendation for a Motion for DNA testing that would likely be successful in this Division.’’

Moreover, the judge said Snyder had discussed the case with lawyers outside the proceedings while it was under seal.

He abruptly fired her in June, about nine months before she was to retire.

This is a most difficult case.

Nelson was the victim of a horrendous injustice. He seemed to lack the resources and guidance to navigate the highly complex criminal justice system. Indeed, it appears that the system fell short of providing adequate professional legal service, opening the way to Snyder’s intervention. The case again demonstrates the need for wider access to proper legal assistance that can assure DNA testing.

The outcome of this case could have been far different. The advice of a nonprofessional is always risky. If wrong, Snyder’s advice could have jeopardized Nelson’s chance to obtain justice. Fortunately, her unauthorized initiative brought a just outcome. For that reason, she deserved some leniency.


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