In an extremely rare action, a federal judge in Baltimore today acquitted a Navy sailor and his wife of second-degree murder charges tied to the death of their 9 1/2 -month-old daughter without letting the case go to the jury.
Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray granted defense motions for the acquittals of Peter J. and Vicki L. Snyder, of Patuxent Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, saying the government did not meet its burden of proof in prosecuting the case.
Murray's action is almost unheard of in U.S. District Court, where judges routinely deny such defense motions in favor of letting trial juries decide guilt or innocence.
However, the judge said prosecution testimony from Dr. Frank Peretti, a state medical examiner who ruled the death a homicide, was "directly contradicted by two highly qualified defense experts who both concluded the child died of a meningococcic infection."
Murray said, too, that there was "no evidence that the parents abused the child in any way."
The judge said he was "satisfied that, if the case were to be submitted to the jury, the court would have to set aside any verdict of guilty."
As he dismissed the jury, which was not in the courtroom for the motions, Murray told the panel, "I don't believe the government has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
As the jury left, the Snyders stood and embraced each other tightly, sobbing, then turned to hug defense attorneys Edward Smith Jr. and Anthony R. Gallagher, an assistant federal public defender, and family members who rushed to the defense table to share their elation.
Tyler Johnston, who represented Peter Snyder as Gallagher's co-counsel, later called the prosecution "a travesty of justice."
"It was a shabby investigation by the Naval Investigative Service and it was a sloppy autopsy" of the dead child, he said.
Johnston said angrily that the Snyders "lived through 1 1/2 years of hell, under the cloud of being called murderers of the one person in this world they loved more than anyone else. I don't believe this case ever would have happened if they had not been poor, Navy enlisted people. . . ."
Peter Snyder said he was "relieved and happy" with Murray's decision. He and his wife both said, "Now we want get on with our lives."
The Snyders, 21-year-old parents of two other children, went on trial April 1 on charges that they "willfully" killed their daughter Alyson by depriving her of life-giving fluids.
Peretti, who performed an autopsy on the child after her death on Thanksgiving morning 1989, testified that Alyson died from dehydration that caused an extreme electrolyte imbalance in her brain. He repeatedly called her death a homicide and said fluids must have been withheld from the infant for five to 10 days before her death.
But the defense experts, a forensic pathologist and a Johns Hopkins microbiologist, said Peretti erred because blood and spinal fluid cultures were not taken from the girl's body until after it was refrigerated.
The defense experts said the child died from a meningococcic infection that killed her swiftly, in a matter of hours. They said the refrigeration probably killed the infectious organisms, which went undetected.
The Snyders, who testified yesterday, flatly denied they failed to feed Alyson enough food and fluids.
Peter Snyder burst into tears as he told the jury how he went through Alyson's clothes and toys the day she died and threw things about her room in helpless frustration.
"I pulled out her old clothes, and started remembering how she'd looked when she wore them," he wailed. "It made me angry. I didn't know why my baby was gone!"
Asked if he had murdered Alyson, he shouted, "NO! I loved my daughter!"
Vicki Snyder was asked one question by her lawyer: Did she withhold fluids from Alyson?
"No!" she said emphatically.