Jackson County Court Clerk Sharon Snyder, 70, was a mere nine months from retirement when she was unceremoniously fired for insubordination. Her rebellious act consisted of pointing someone to a publicly available document.
An inmate who was trying, and failing, to file a simple motion was given a successful motion to use as a model. His motion was granted, he was exonerated, and like the aging cop archetype of film — dramatically killed just before his scheduled retirement — Snyder got canned after 34 years of working in the courthouse.
Now the justice system is once more desperately trying to spin why it punishes people for being right…
Back in 1984, Robert Nelson was convicted of rape and given, for all intents and purposes, a life sentence. Except Nelson knew he didn’t do it. And not in that “everyone in jail is innocent” kind of way. At this point he began doing what countless inmates do with their time: filing poorly prepared motions protesting their innocence.
In August 2009, Nelson filed a motion seeking DNA testing that had not been available at his trial 25 years earlier, but Jackson County 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.
At this point Sharon Snyder gave Nelson’s sister a copy of a properly written motion that Robert could use as a model. Forget the fact that her actions wound up freeing an innocent man, Snyder deserves a commendation for saving the judicial system from one more terribly composed pro se motion.
After Robert Nelson prevailed on his motion, DNA testing confirmed that he did not commit the crime, to the shock of no one paying even a little bit of attention to how these things usually turn out. But the trouble was just beginning for Snyder:
Five days after Nelson was released, Court Administrator Jeffrey Eisenbeis took Snyder into Byrn’s office near closing time and told her the prosecutor and defense attorney “had a problem” with her involvement in the case. She was suspended without pay, ordered to stay out of the courthouse unless she had permission to be there and scheduled to meet with a human resources investigator June 20.
“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, who had been planning to retire in March. She later found out her pension would be just fine.
Byrn fired her June 27, telling her she had 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.
The judge’s dismissal letter cites numerous recorded phone conversations between Dunnell and Nelson in which they discussed Snyder’s efforts, including the document she provided that Nelson used in his successful DNA motion.
“The document you chose was, in effect, your recommendation for a Motion for DNA testing that would likely be successful in this Division,” Byrn wrote. “But it was clearly improper and a violation of Canon Seven… which warns against the risk of offering an opinion or suggested course of action.”
At least she’s still getting her pension. Obviously a clerk shouldn’t be offering legal advice, but handing out a public document as a model is not really legal advice. Especially when the inmate has already demonstrated what legal action he means to take.
Judge David “Not From the Talking Heads” Byrn probably should have considered the optics of an old woman helping an innocent man, but he didn’t and is now the least popular judge in America.
Judge Byrn succeeded in highlighting the perversity of the criminal justice system by creating the most sympathetic fact pattern imaginable. Byrn himself denied multiple requests of an innocent man for stylistic reasons, and when finally forced to acknowledge the substance, he reacted by firing an old woman for having the gall to think that the system is about “guilt” or “innocence” rather than blowing off inmate requests and throwing around the word “Judge” to make dinner reservations. As Conor Friedersdorf points out:
When an inmate is exonerated by DNA, the most important consequence is the release of an innocent man or woman from prison, but that isn’t all that happens. Taxpayers need no longer pay for room and board. Family members and friends stop suffering an absence. And in roughly half of DNA exonerations to date, the true perpetrator of the crime has been identified by the evidence. Everyone wins, save for the police, prosecutor, judge, and jury who put the innocent man away. They ought to admit their mistakes. Many do. But sometimes they keep fighting.
The cost of a DNA test is trivial compared to the possibility (and cost) of incarcerating an innocent person for years or even decades. A criminal justice system that lived up to its name wouldn’t force prisoners to fight for these tests, jumping through hoops that require a law degree to understand. A just system would automatically test DNA in any case where it could conclusively prove innocence or guilt. Too often in our system, the adversarial nature of most proceedings obscure the fact that the end goal is to punish the guilt and exonerate the innocent. If prosecutors and judges who send innocents to prison face no consequences for doing so, even as a court clerk who helps to exonerate an innocent man is fired for insubordination, everyone may well be faithfully applying rules that were adopted with the best of intentions.
The adversarial system is supposed to aid justice, not obscure it. But when the system is too concerned with matching every crime with a body behind bars regardless of the consequences, it ends up looking like Judge Byrn’s courtroom.
Which is unfortunately not a unique look for an American courtroom. Hopefully there are more Sharon Snyders out there, too.
Mo. judge fires 34-year court employee for providing document that helped free innocent man [Associated Press via The Republic]
Court worker is fired after providing sample motion, which inmate uses to win DNA test and release [ABA Journal]
What Kind of ‘Justice System’ Refuses to Test DNA Evidence? [Atlantic]
Court Clerk Fired For Helping Secure DNA Test That Proved A Man’s Innocence [Think Progress]