Clerk Fired for Helping Free Innocent Man

A court clerk in Missouri has been fired for helping a man falsely convicted of rape file the proper paperwork to get DNA tests done that proved his innocence. And all this for giving him a copy of motion that was available to the public all along.

Robert Nelson was freed from prison last month, after serving years for a rape he maintained he didn’t commit. After testing his DNA, the Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab determined that DNA tests excluded Nelson from the evidence recovered from the rape, according to the Associated Press.

Nelson had been convicted 25 years earlier, but the DNA testing wasn’t available then. When DNA testing did become available, defendants were not made aware of new technology, or offered testing. Nelson first sought to have his DNA tested in 2009, but a judge rejected his motion because he did not meet statutory criteria. Nelson tried again two years later with no success. Acting on his own, from his prison cell, without a lawyer, Nelson did not have the legal wherewithal to file the motion himself.

In late 2011, court clerk Sharon Snyder did something that made all the difference. She gave Nelson’s sister a copy of a similar motion filed in another case. Using that motion as a reference, Nelson succeeded in securing DNA testing on his third try, in February 2012. Only then was he assigned a lawyer. And more than a year later, that DNA test secured Nelson’s freedom.

Days later, Snyder was fired for violating court rules about assisting a party in a case.

If he had requested a copy of that motion, which should be in the public domain, it would almost certainly not have been a violation. But if she hadn’t done what she did, he would likely still be in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A criminal justice system that puts technicalities ahead of actual justice is fatally flawed.

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  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

    This is one example of why I don’t think it’s possible to work with the system.

  • exdrone

    If he had requested a copy of that motion, which should be in the public domain, it would almost certainly not have been a violation.

    But he didn’t say “Simon says,” so she’s out. Sorry, no take-backs.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    We can’t have people getting help without paying lawyers.

  • Chiroptera

    Ace of Sevens beat me to it.

    Here we have a procedure that is too complicated for non-professional to successfully navigate, so if you can’t afford competent c o until then you are SOL.

  • caseloweraz

    Won’t somebody think of the prison guards who could lose their jobs if this sort of testing becomes common?

    /sarcasm

    Seriously, if the court wants to be so nit-pickingly concerned with rules, Sharon Snyder should be reinstated because she didn’t assist a party to the case — Robert Nelson — she helped his sister.

  • F [is for failure to emerge]

    Not that any system of justice worthy of the name shouldn’t be re-examining all old evidence on contested convictions whenever significantly better methods for analyzing such evidence become available, then acting on the information appropriately.

    No, much better to deny justice because the law has already run its course. At least the prisoner was freed in this case. Some states *cough*texas*cough* won’t review anything even when new evidence conclusively eliminates the already-imprisoned from the pool of suspects. Even when it is handed to them at no cost to the state.

  • Taz

    It gets even better:

    A 70-year-old woman employed by the same court for more than 34 years was fired just nine months before her scheduled retirement, for helping an inmate obtain a DNA test that led to his exoneration.

  • wscott

    I do understand why, as a general rule, we don’t want court clerks to take sides in cases before the court. Kinda busts the whole impartiality thing. And from the original article, it sounds like it was a bit more involved than sliding one document across the table, with “numerous” recorded phone conversations.

    But still…freed an innocent man from prison? You’d think that would outweigh a procedural infraction.

  • Taz

    Reading the rest of the story, it appears she retained her pension, so the upshot was that she retired a little earlier than planned. In a way that makes the story worse, because it’s doubtful someone who wasn’t in that situation would have done what she did.

  • John Pieret

    Snyder was fired for violating court rules about assisting a party in a case.

    What kind of moronic jurisdiction is this? As a lawyer, I regularly ask for, and receive, assistance from court clerks on how to navigate the system. They provide the appropriate forms and will even suggest the particular codes I need to consult. In a pinch, they might even refer me to particular cases. While I could understand rules that prevent clerks from, on government time, becoming adovocates for a party, this certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    Even if it was a technical violation of the rules, just how stupid do you have to be to fire someone who should be given a medal for helping to free an innocent man? Oh, excuse me … I was thinking this was supposed to be a justice system! Silly me!

  • John Pieret

    P.S. I’m willing to bet that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of local lawyers willing to take Snyder’s case if she wants to fight it. One thing we lawyers prize are clerks who are helpful.

  • cotton

    I don’t think clerks should assist either side in a case, but there is a fatal problem with the justice system if they feel the need to. This isn’t some last ditch, tenuous argument of non-guilt the imprisoned is trying to get assistance to make. He’s simply trying to get access to straight forward scientific data that already exists. Either the DNA matches, or it doesn’t. Any justice system that doesn’t have some procedure to incorporate one of the biggest breakthroughs in forensics history to relevant past convictions is unacceptably flawed.

    I know I’ve watched several TV shows regarding unsolved crimes where DNA evidence became critical long after the crime had been committed, often b/c DNA forensics wasn’t even a science at the time. Why on earth would not that same justice system be JUST as dedicated to freeing the innocent, and verifying the guilty?

  • howardhershey

    Apparently the law, in its majestic equality, and unlike good science, regards finality of result more valuable than truth of result.

  • Michael Heath

    cotton writes:

    I don’t think clerks should assist either side in a case . . .

    How about clerks help everyone by providing maximum access to information they can access.

  • Jeff D

    Court clerks routinely “assist” both sides in cases. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t do so. This situation is slightly unusual because the man had already been convicted. I’ve been practicing law for 33 years (but not criminal defense law). I’ve never heard of a local court rule prohibiting a clerk from “assisting” one side. More commonly, court clerks are told and trained to decline to give legal advice to members of the public.

    Although it did not happen here (a publcly-available motion from another case file could be and was used succcessfully here by the wrongfully convicted man), there is a risk of serious screw-ups when clerks (who think they being helpful) provide what is essentially legal advice, by selecting a sample document and providing it to a member of the public as a suggested “form.” I have seen a number of real cases in which individuals relied on such “assistance” from a court clerk, did not seek a lawyer’s advice, filed something incorrect, and caused irreversible damage to their rights.

  • andrew3112

    f you think Jonathan`s story is super…, 2 weaks-ago my girlfriend’s mum basically brought home $5978 sitting there an eleven hour week from home and the’re classmate’s step-aunt`s neighbour did this for 7-months and broght in more than $5978 in there spare time from a laptop. applie the steps from this address, BAM21.com

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    Well, there is a VERY good reason that Nelson was in jail for all those years; he’s, um, er, uh–NOTWHITE!

    I can’t find a photo of grannyclerk but I bet she’s NOTNOTWHITE. It’s inexcusable what she did. It’s jursiprurience miscegenation’s whatitis!!

    I wonder if maybe the original case featured a young prosecutor, wet behind the ears, lookin’ to put a few notches on his belt? I can’t google the information but I bet there’s a backstory.