Sharon Snyder, a 70-year-old Missouri court clerk who was just nine months short of retirement, thought she was doing the right thing by helping to secure a DNA test that exonerated Robert Nelson, a man who had served years in prison for a rape he insisted he did not commit. Instead, she was terminated by the court she had worked at for 34 years because it said she had violated rules about assisting a party in a case.
Nelson had been convicted of rape 25 years ago, before DNA testing was made available. Without legal representation, he tried and failed twice to get a DNA test. But then Snyder intervened, giving Nelson’s sister a copy of a similar motion from a different case that ended up helping Nelson get a lawyer, the test and, eventually, his freedom.
But the real travesty is that, had Snyder not violated rules and risked her termination, Nelson might have never been exonerated. There are several reasons for this. One is that he had scant access to a lawyer until he successfully made a motion on his own that he was not equipped to make, with no guidance or even template for moving forward. Another is that many prosecutors are vigorous opponents to testing that could provide definitive, scientific evidence about a case. DNA evidence exonerating one person is not only evidence that person is innocent; it is also evidence that the real perpetrator may still be at large. The third, glaring, hallmark of injustice is that defendants do not have a right to test their own DNA, even at their own expense. All of this means that inmates are remaining in jail unnecessarily — and death row inmates remain on death row, even as new evidence continues to emerge about the significant flaws in several other types of forensic evidence.