Enter court clerk Sharon Snyder of Kansas City. She was fired in June for giving Robert Nelson a public document that showed him how to properly seek a DNA test.
Here’s how his story – and hers, for that matter – began. From The Associated Press:
Robert Nelson, 49, was convicted in 1984 of a Kansas City rape that he insisted he didn’t commit and sentenced to 50 years for forcible rape, five years for forcible sodomy and 15 years for first-degree robbery. The judge ordered the sentence to start after he finished serving time for robbery convictions in two unrelated cases prior to the rape conviction.
Those sentences ended in 2006.
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.
‘She gave me a lot of hope’
Following that failure of the second motion, in late October 2011, Snyder gave Nelson’s sister, Sea Dunnell, a copy of a motion that had been filed under a different case but in which the judge okayed a request for DNA testing.
So Nelson used the motion, which, by the way, was a public document that Dunnell could have obtained herself if she had understood its significance and knew where to look. He refiled again on Feb. 22, 2012, once more seeking DNA testing.
The following August, Byrn sustained the motion. At that time, he also found Nelson to be indigent and appointed the legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, Laura O’Sullivan, to be his counsel.
Finally, in June of this year, the Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded, through DNA tests, that Nelson was not the source of evidence officers recovered from the 1983 rape scene; he was freed June 12.
“She gave me a lot of hope,” Nelson said of Snyder. “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.”
‘I think I might have been the answer to his prayers’
More from the AP:
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, 70, adding she had already planned to retire in March.
She has since found out her pension will be fine.
The judge, in his letter firing her, said she violated rules aimed at barring court officials from recommending courses of action. But to her, all Snyder did was provide Nelson and his sister with an avenue of hope.
“I lent an ear to his sister, and maybe I did wrong,” Snyder told the AP. “But if it was my brother, I would go to every resource I could possibly find. I think I might have been the answer to his prayers.”