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Judge fires 34-year court veteran for good deed

Sunday, July 28, 2013 | 5:22 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A Kansas City man freed from prison three decades after being wrongfully convicted of rape considers Sharon Snyder his "angel" for giving him a public document that showed him how to properly seek DNA tests. A Jackson County Circuit judge considers the 34-year court employee an insubordinate for offering legal advice and being too chatty about courthouse matters.

Sharon Snyder, a 70-year-old great-grandmother who was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire, sees herself somewhere in the middle and insists she would provide the same help if she had a chance to do it again.

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.

After the second motion failed in late October 2011, Snyder gave Nelson's sister, Sea Dunnell, a copy of a motion filed in a different case in which the judge sustained a DNA request.

Nelson used that motion — a public document Dunnell could have gotten if she had known its significance and where to find it — as a guide for a motion he filed Feb. 22, 2012, again seeking DNA testing. That August, Byrn sustained the motion, found Nelson to be indigent and appointed Laura O'Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, to represent him.

The 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.

"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."

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."

Court spokeswoman Valerie Hartman said Byrn and other court officials wouldn't comment on the story for a number of legal and ethical reasons, in addition to it being a personnel matter. Nelson's attorney, O'Sullivan, also declined to comment.

"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.

"I think I might have been the answer to his prayers."

 


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