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.