Constitutional Law Criminal Law General

Helping Exonerate Man Costs Court Staffer Her Job

By way of my cousin Olga, I learned of a story that made my head spin. As reported in the Kansas City Star, Sharon Snyder has worked in the Missouri court system for 34 years. She was due to retire in less than a year when she was approached by a woman named Sea Dunnell. Ms. Dunnell’s brother, Robert Nelson had been convicted in 1984 of a rape charge which she always felt he did not commit. With the advent of DNA testing, Nelson had made two pro se motions for DNA testing of evidence that remained in the evidence room of the Kansas City Police Department. Both motions had been denied because the judge felt they did not meet the legal standards required in the State’s DNA testing statute.

Frustrated, Ms. Dunnell went to the courthouse looking for any assistance she could find to help her brother get over the procedural hurdles. She found a willing ear in Ms. Snyder, a 70 year old great-grandmother, 9 months away from retirement. Ms. Snyder spoke with Ms. Dunnell a few times and then she located a DNA motion used in another case that was granted by the same judge who had denied Mr. Nelson’s previous motions. The motion was a public record readily accessible if you just knew where to look. Armed with the right procedural language, Mr. Nelson filed a third motion for DNA testing; this time the motion was granted.

kcpdThe Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded last month that DNA tests excluded Nelson as the source of evidence recovered from the 1983 rape scene and he was freed June 12 after serving 30 plus years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Instead of being given a medal for what she did, Ms. Snyder was hauled into the administrative judge’s office and summarily suspended and then subsequently terminated from her position. Her crime was violating Canon Seven of the rules for court employees which prohibits court staff from “offering an opinion or a suggested course of action.” Thankfully, at least, the court decided to allow her to keep her pension though for the month or so during her suspension, she thought the pension was gone: “At first I didn’t know if my pension was going to be intact, and all I could do was curl up in a fetal position and cry,” said Snyder,in the Kansas City Star.

To say that the court chose form over substance is beyond understatement. Certainly, we do not want court employees giving legal advice to one side or another in a pending matter. But this was simply a court employee giving a public document to a person who did not know how to retrieve it on her own. Also, there really was no “other side” in this particular case as Nelson was just seeking DNA testing and not filing any paperwork that would effect the rights of others. The story certainly takes the adage of “No good deed goes unpunished” to the extreme.

Meanwhile, of course, Mr. Nelson is profoundly grateful for the assistance Ms. Snyder provided. He is quoted as saying: “She gave me a lot of hope. She and my sister gave me strength to go on and keep trying. I call her my angel. She says she’s not, but she truly is.” Ms. Snyder remains humble and without regret:

“I lent an ear to his sister, and maybe I did wrong,” Snyder said. “But if it was my brother, I would go to every resource I could possibly find.” It was a lucky day for Mr. Nelson when his sister ran into Ms. Snyder and sad day for justice in Missouri when a court system could not look past a violation of a legal technicality that helped correct a massive wrong.

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4 replies on “Helping Exonerate Man Costs Court Staffer Her Job”

Mr. Nelson did not serve 30 years for a crime he did not commit. His rape sentence did not begin until his two prior armed robbery sentences were completed in 2006.

I did not phrase that correctly and thank you for clarifying it. While he was in fact serving time for earlier robbery convictions, he would have faced the same fate had he been in on just the rape charge and all the time after 2006 was just for the rape case. Thanks again for posting your comment

I think the better question is why didn’t the judge allow the pro se defendant more latitude in the procedural deficiencies of his pleading or at least cite a specific reason that would provide some direction in his order.

I certainly agree that the court should have let the procedural deficiencies slide or given him some direction, but we have recently seen many courts (including the Supreme Court) hold to form over substance in post-conviction proceedings.

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