Hear me out.
The news media is indignant over the firing of Sharon Snyder, 70, a court worker who provided a copy of a successful motion for seeking post-conviction DNA testing that gained Robert Nelson a reversal of his wrongful 1984 rape conviction. He had been sentenced to more than 50 years in prison, and the belated DNA testing showed that he was innocent. Nevertheless, court officials in Jackson County, Missouri ruled that Nelson’s “angel” had improperly provided advice about a case, among other violations of court rules.
Snyder was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire, and there is little question that without her efforts, Nelson would still be in prison. 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 Nelson’s self-drafted document was insufficient under the statute Nelson had cited. After the second motion was rejected, Snyder contacted Nelson’s sister and gave her a copy of a successful motion, drafted by a lawyer, that resulted in the same judge granting another DNA testing request. Nelson then used it as a template for a motion he filed Feb. 22, 2012, again seeking DNA testing. Byrn sustained the motion, found Nelson to be indigent and appointed Laura O’Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, to represent him. Last month, the Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded that DNA tests proved that Nelson was not the rapist in the crime he had been convicted of committing. He was freed on June 12, 2013
This is all good, and an example of justice finally, if belatedly, prevailing.
Snyder’s role, however, got her suspended without pay, and then fired on June 27. She had apparently discussed aspects of the case with Dunnell and attorneys not involved in the matter, according to the evidence of recorded phone conversations between the then-imprisoned Nelson and his sister.The judge’s dismissal letter to Snyder cites the recorded conversations, and notes,
“The document you chose was, in effect, your recommendation for a Motion for DNA testing that would likely be successful in this Division. 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.”
Virtually every commentator has condemned the decision to fire Snyder. Here’s Joe Patrice at Above the Law:
“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.”
All of which misses a very crucial point, and the key point, as far as firing Snyder goes. A court cannot function if clerks and court administrators take it upon themselves to champion the cases of particular parties. It’s not their job, and they can do a lot of damage. The rules that prohibit what Snyder did are not only good rules, but necessary and responsible rules. In the ethical assessment of what Snyder did, most of the facts that the media and critics have focused on are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that she is old, about to retire, or a grandmother. It also doesn’t matter that Nelson turned out to be innocent, either. Snyder didn’t know he was innocent. If he had not been innocent, the recorded phone conversations had revealed Snyder meddling in a legal matter, and she had then been fired, this would not be newsworthy in any way, nor would anyone now argue that court clerks should be allowed to secretly work with prisoners and their family on their cases. That Nelson was proven innocent was pure moral luck, and judging Snyder’s improper actions as proper because of what transpired after she engaged in them is consequentialism at its worst.
She violated important rules and crossed lines that the court cannot allow to be crossed. It has to fire workers who cross them because it cannot trust such employees to be impartial and to uphold the integrity of the justice sysstem, and I can’t think of a better way to make that point than firing Snyder. (And by the by, does anyone think that this is the first time Snyder did something like this? I think that is unlikely.)
Am I glad that Nelson was freed?
Am I happy that Snyder broke the rules in this case?
Do I agree that the Judge’s conduct was questionable and not in the best interests of justice?
Does the case point up some of the weaknesses in the system?
Do I admire Snyder for what she did?
I’m not so certain. I think it’s easy to say she was courageous, but I’m not persuaded that she thought she was at any risk—because she was old, close to retirement, and a sympathetic figure. I would not be surprised to find that she was habitual meddler, and this also reflects badly on the courts system in Jackson County.
Yes…it all turned out well. Snyder was forced to leave some months before she planned, but her pension, we are told, is intact. An unjustly imprisoned man is free. A judge of questionable judgment is under special scrutiny. Nonetheless—and a majority of the public has trouble with this key ethical concept—just because conduct was undertaken for admirable reasons and has good results does not make that conduct ethical.
It also has trouble with this one: just because the correct conduct is motivated by unethical instincts (I think the suspicion that Snyder was fired in part because she embarrassed the judge is well founded) doesn’t make it unethical.
Snyder should have been fired.
Still, she should take pride in the fact that what got her justifiably fired freed an innocent man.
(I never said ethics was easy.)
Facts: Kansas City Star
Graphic: 2013 Trending