According to the Associated Press:
“A Kansas City man freed from prison three decades after being wrongfully convicted of rape considers Sharon Snyder his ‘angel’ for giving him a public document that showed him how to properly seek DNA tests. A Jackson County Circuit judge considers the 34-year court employee an insubordinate for offering legal advice and being too chatty about courthouse matters.”
The timeline of events is as follows:
- 1984: Robert Nelson is convicted of rape, forcible sodomy, and first-degree robbery.
- 2009: Nelson seeks DNA testing that wasn’t available during his original trial. Judge David Byrn denies the request.
- August 2011: Nelson asks Byrn to reconsider; Byrn rejects Nelson’s motion because it falls short of statute requirements.
- October 2011: Sharon Snyder give’s Nelson’s sister a copy of a successful (public) motion for DNA testing filed in a different case.
- February 2012: Nelson uses this document as a basis for his new motion for DNA testing.
- August 2012: Byrn sustains the motion allowing for DNA testing.
- June 2013: The Kansas City crime lab concludes Nelson is not the source of the DNA evidence; Nelson is freed. Five days later Snyder is suspended without pay for her involvement in the case.
- June 27, 2013: Byrn fires Snyder, saying Snyder “violated several court rules by providing assistance to Nelson and talking about aspects of the case, even while under seal, to attorneys not involved in the matter.”
Byrn, Nelson’s attorney, and other court officials declined to comment on the story. Snyder, however, explained, “I lent an ear to his sister, and maybe I did wrong, but if it was my brother, I would go to every resource I could possibly find.”
On the one hand, if court employees broke the rules every time they heard an emotionally compelling story, our system would not run smoothly at all. On the other hand, it seems like a failure of the system that an innocent prisoner did not otherwise have the resources (that is, did not have the knowledge or assistance) to make his case. What do you think? Should Snyder have done what she did?
6 thoughts on “Court employee fired for helping innocent inmate access DNA testing.”
I try to withold judgment a lot when I’m in over my head, and legal waters are murky. But I think you outlined the case pretty clearly. In an ideal world, Snyder doesn’t listen to sob stories from the relatives of inmates and in an ideal world inmates get competent public counsel. But in the real world, I can’t imagine doing other than what Snyder did. I’m not sure if the penalty is in some necessary for the proper functioning of the court, but as I see things, Snyder did the right thing.
I tend to agree. I was trying to think what else Snyder could have done within the bounds of her job. Would she be breaking the rules to notify an attorney of the situation, or to suggest the sister contact an attorney?
By focusing the story on providing a copy of a public document there is an apparent mismatch between the act and the punishment. But there’s probably more to the story. If Snyder was making suggestions, giving legal advice, and especially providing information that is under seal, she probably did wrong and the punishment might make more sense. (Apparently Snyder was recorded in calls discussing non-public information with the sister.)
The situation is also complicated by only the clerk (Snyder) being punished. Quoting from a legal commentator:
“I am surprised with the level [of] discipline against her. Notably, there has been no effort to review the actions of the police or prosecution in the wrongful conviction. There is no effort to review Bryn[‘s] own repeated refusal to allow such simple testing of the evidence. It is the clerk who is fired.
“I am also surprised that Judge Bryn would take this action himself since he was directly involved in the prior case and the testing has proven an embarrassment to him. I would have though that a recusal might have been ordered for another judge to look at the matter.
This. Seriously. Stepping back and looking at the big picture there’s just something really, really wrong when it’s the clerk (who was trying to help) who gets the axe while everyone else–protected by privilege, authority, and unions–who actually contributed to ruining an innocent man’s life–remain immune. Something’s not right.
That’s a really good point. It’s my understanding that prosecutors and police officers and the like typically have to show a *pattern* of purposeful *abuse* to get any kind of punishment. But I believe it varies from state to state.
It may have been right that Snyder be fired; if she shared non-public information she could have been breaking the law, after all. But I do think there’s too much leniency for people who put the innocent behind bars through corruption or incompetence. Honest mistakes are one thing, but incompetence and corruption are quite different.
But when it’s a choice of violating the letter or the spirit of the law– I would hope to violate the letter every time.
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