Friday, August 23, 2013

122.2 - Hero Award: Sharon Snyder

Hero Award: Sharon Snyder

Now, going the other way, we have an edition of the Hero Award, given occasionally to people who just do the right thing on a matter big or small.

In 1984, a man named Robert Nelson was convicted of a Kansas City rape that he insisted he didn’t commit. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In August 2009, Nelson filed a motion seeking DNA testing that had not been available at the time of his trial. Jackson County (Missouri) Circuit Judge David Byrn denied the request. Two years later Nelson asked the judge to reconsider, but again Byrn rejected the motion because it fell short of what was required under the statute Nelson had cited. In other words, the judge blew him off because his motion didn't fit all the precise legal niceties and technicalities the priesthood of the law demand in their invocations.

After the second motion failed in late October 2011, Sharon Snyder, a 70-year-old great-grandmother who had served as a court employee for 34 years, gave Nelson’s sister a copy of a motion filed in a different case in which the judge sustained a DNA request.

This, it's important to note, was a public document which Nelson's sister could have gotten if she had known of its significance and where to find it – in other words, if she knew all the legal technicalities.

Using that motion as a guide, in February 2012 Nelson again filed a motion seeking DNA testing. That August, Byrn upheld the motion, found Nelson to be indigent, and appointed an attorney to represent him.

The Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded that the DNA tests that resulted from the motion excluded Nelson as the source of evidence recovered from the original rape scene. He could not have been the guilty party. He was freed June 12.

Five days later, Sharon Snyder was suspended without pay and banned from the courthouse where she had worked for 34 years. Ten days after that, Judge Byrn fired her, just nine months short of her retirement.

The reason for the firing? She had helped Nelson by telling him, through his sister, how he could obtain the DNA testing he had twice failed to get. Supposedly, by doing so she broke sacred law - excuse me, court rules.

An innocent man had been sent to prison for 50 years. An innocent man would have, and in Judge Byrn's judgment, should have spent decades more in prison because legal technicalities and arcane rules of procedure were more important than justice or truth.

Instead, because of Sharon Snyder, he's free. For which she was suspended and then fired. She feels she was "severely punished."

But here's the thing: When she was asked if she would do it again, Sharon Snyder said "Oh yes, I would do it again. I am so happy that he got exonerated on this charge, and [he] felt that would happen or he wouldn't have filed that motion to start out with."

"I would do it again." Those are the words of a hero.


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