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Court Employee Fired for Helping Wrongfully Convicted Prisoner Prove His Innocence

In 1984, Robert E. Nelson was convicted and sentenced by Jackson County, Missouri Circuit Court Judge David M. Byrn to 50 years in prison for forcible rape, 5 years for forcible sodomy and 15 years for first-degree robbery, plus two unrelated robbery convictions. Nelson’s sentence for the latter two convictions ended in 2006, leaving him serving time for the remaining robbery and sexual offenses.

In August 2009, Nelson petitioned Judge Byrn for post-conviction DNA testing which was not available at his trial 25 years earlier. That request, and a second request in October 2011, were both denied because Nelson had cited a state statute that was not expansive enough to allow for his DNA to be tested. Following the second denial, Judge Byrn’s administrative assistant, 70-year-old great-grandmother Sharon Snyder, took pity on Nelson. Snyder located a DNA testing motion that had been granted in another case – a public document freely available to those who knew where to look – and provided it to Nelson’s sister to pass along.

Nelson used the successful motion as a guide and petitioned the court for DNA testing a third time on February 22, 2012. His motion was granted, he was found to be indigent and Midwest Innocence Project legal director Laura O’Sullivan was appointed to represent him. The Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab tested evidence from the crime scene and found it did not match Nelson’s DNA, though it did match two other suspects. Nelson was released from prison on June 12, 2013 upon the joint request of prosecutors and the Midwest Innocence Project, after serving three decades – mostly on the unrelated robbery convictions. Both of his parents had died while he was incarcerated.

“If we had not found this mistake that occurred, it’s likely he would have served out the rest of his sentence, and the real perpetrators would not have been identified,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “This is a day that justice is being served.”

Five days after Nelson’s release from prison, justice was not served when Snyder was suspended by Court Administrator Jeffrey Eisenbeis for providing the DNA testing motion that eventually resulted in Nelson’s wrongful conviction being overturned. Judge Byrn fired Snyder on June 27, 2013, calling her decision to give the motion to Nelson’s sister “clearly improper” and a violation of Canon Seven of the court’s code of ethics, which prohibits court employees from giving legal advice.

Snyder, who had planned to retire in nine months, at first was alarmed that she would lose her pension. “[A]ll I could do was curl up in a fetal position and cry,” she stated. After learning that her pension was safe, she said she felt she was on strong moral ground.

“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” to help him, she said. “I think that the law should be changed, that judges should be taken out of the mix on deciding these DNA motions, and they should automatically be granted.”

Sources: Associated Press,,,,,

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