The Golden Rule

Remember the “Golden Rule”?  It goes something like, “do unto others, as you’d have done to you.”  Calling it the “Golden” rule means that it should supersede all other rules or choices you can make in your life.  We teach it to our children, we struggle to practice it ourselves.  It becomes all the more difficult when you hear the story of Great Grandmother Sharon Snyder.

That’s what happened to Snyder, Court Clerk in the Jackson County Courthouse. (Full Disclosure: Ms. Snyder is a family friend and has been for 30 years.) In 1984, Robert Nelson was convicted of rape and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  At the time, DNA testing didn’t exist and Nelson maintained his innocence.  According to the Associated Press story, “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.”

Robert Nelson did not have any representation. Sitting alone in a prison cell, he was simply submitting these requests on his own volition, confident in his own innocence.  Nelson, an intelligent and quiet man, continued to file requests, but his family privately thought he was near to giving up hope.  Nelson’s requests were twice denied by Judge Byrn, while others from other inmates were granted.

The laws concerning DNA testing have changed considerably in the past 5-10 years.  Snyder was aware of an additional Court filing that might’ve helped the Nelson case so she got in contact with Nelson’s sister and provided her a court document showing another Judge upheld the same court motion.  This was a public document, but not one that Nelson knew of from his prison cell.  “I was just trying to help [Nelson and his sister] down the right path,” Sharon said while heading out on a rainy Monday to pick up her two great grandchildren.

Armed with this new information, provided by Snyder, Nelson got a new attorney, a new hearing and got his DNA tested.  The Kansas City Police Crime Lab determined that his DNA was not used during the rape and cleared Nelson.  Nelson walked out of prison last month a free man.  “You’re my Angel,” Nelson told Snyder after he had been freed. Snyder, in self-deprecating humor told him, “Oh no, you’ve got the wrong person. I’m no angel!”  Days later, however, Snyder would be fired.

In the true spirit of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Snyder was fired on June 28th because she disobeyed ethics rules in the Jackson County Courthouse against providing legal advice to people.  She was fired by Jackson County Circuit Judge David Byrn five days following Nelson’s release.  This is the same Judge who had twice denied the DNA request knowing that there was precedent to allow it.  When I asked Snyder if, in her 34 years of service to Jackson County, if she’d ever seen anyone else fired for breaking the same rule, she told me, simply, “no.”

I keep coming back to the Golden Rule.  Do unto others. Regardless of the consequences.  Sharon was just doing something kind for a person who needed some help.  Justice should be blind, but not completely uncaring.  And considering the Judge might’ve been shown up here by being “overruled” by a 70 year old Court Clerk, it’s not surprising people consider our Justice System broken.

The Snyder story is poised for national attention.  Comments on KSHB’s facebook page number in the hundreds and she’s gotten calls from as far away as the San Francisco Chronicle. She said she is “humbled” by the entire experience and that she’s been contacted by former colleagues, attorneys and friends since the episode became public. “All this support has helped validate what I did. I feel what I did was right. If I had it to do all over to do, I’d do it the same way.”

Sharon Snyder is 70 years old. She is a great-grandmother. She has served the County of Jackson for 34 years, and she helped free an innocent man.  Regardless of what the County and Courthouse politics thinks of her, she should sleep well knowing that she upheld the Golden Rule.

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