Albeit a few weeks old, this story out of Jackson County is a truly bizarre tale of modern day American Justice and the confluence of a strong desire to adhere to rigid bureaucratic rules and the grander notions of Doing The Right Thing and Justice1.
A Kansas City2 man, Robert Nelson, was convicted in 1984 for a rape and sentenced to 50 years consecutive to sentences he was already serving. Those sentences ended in 2006, meaning that’s when he started serving the 50 year sentence for rape3.
Thing is, Nelson claimed from the beginning that he wasn’t the guy. He was innocent and should be let out of jail. So:
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.
You know how this goes. Eventually, Nelson gets a third motion granted, the DNA is tested and lo-and-behold, he’s fucking innocent.
So what was different this time? Someone gave him a template to use that had been successful in another case. That someone was Sharon Snyder, a 70-year old court clerk of 34 years. She simply took a public document from another case, redacted identifying information and gave it to Nelson’s sister, saying “here, file it in this format”4.
Nelson used that motion – a public document Dunnell [the sister] 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.
And then Byrn finds out that it was Snyder who provided a copy of a public document. This obviously could not stand, so 90 days before she was set to retire, Snyder was fired. For. Umm. Hang on a second. Let me find a good phrase. Bureaucratic disobedience?
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.
What defense attorney? You mean the one who was appointed after his motion for DNA testing was granted? I doubt it. And what problem? Making them look bad?
Keep in mind that nothing in the article or in the facts that can be gleaned or inferred from the reporting indicate that Nelson’s first two motions were denied because of their merits. They weren’t rejected because he didn’t make a sufficient factual claim that he should get DNA testing. It appears as though they were rejected for bureaucratic, ‘not-filed-in-triplicate-signed-by-your-deceased-great-grandmother’ reasons. They were rejected because the format of the motions didn’t comply with the statute.
So who is Nelson to turn to? An incarcerated inmate who took two cracks at filing a pro-se motion just to get an attorney appointed to get DNA testing performed to prove that he wasn’t guilty of the crime he was convicted of. No one. The point was that he was on his own or out of luck. That’s what the system does to pro-se litigants.
There is such a stubborn desire across the nation to protect convictions at all costs. There’s also a very strong sense of territorialism in county and district courts in some parts of the country where some judges rule like petty kings. Anyone who may dare to cross their path shall be smited, ridiculed and fired.
Prosecutors, judges and legislatures are so invested in this idea of “finality” and are so afraid of finding out that they’ve convicted an innocent person that rules across the country have cropped up erecting the most intricate and elaborate obstacles to post-conviction review of convictions. The Great Writ, once a pillar of the vindication of justice, a shining beacon and last resort of the illegally detained, has been eviscerated to the point that it’s unrecognizable. Post-conviction DNA statutes are absurd in their requirements and innocence has been held to mean not only your innocence but proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of another identifiable person. A technicality, I’ve said recently, isn’t what you think it is. A technicality is more often the tool of the state to protect its interest in the finality of convictions it obtains, the validity and legality of those convictions be damned.
Here, Nelson was, indeed, innocent, about to serve 50+ years for a crime he didn’t commit. And if Snyder hadn’t given him the magic form to fill to get Byrn’s attention, he’d be stuck in jail for the next 50 years, banging his head against a wall, wondering just why he couldn’t get anyone to listen to him.
“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.”
What is Canon Seven? Can someone find out?
I think, in the end, whether she was “rightly” or “wrongfully” 5 fired is but a sideshow. Snyder is happy with her pension and the knowledge that she was able to help an innocent man get out of jail, bureaucratic nonsense notwithstanding.
The real tragedy here is that our system of justice is so adamant to put form over substance that an innocent man being denied a chance to prove his freedom is an acceptable consequence of failing to color inside the lines.
There are rules – don’t kill/harm/rape and don’t let innocent men go to prison – and then there are rules – submit on yellow typepaper, scrawled with the ossified tooth of a wildebeast’s carcass found in the northwest region of the Massai forest. There should be no confusion as to which rules are to be followed and which are not to be strictly so.
When we start sacrificing the former for the latter, we know the system has gone mad6.