Anguish finally ends for father and mother Federal judge throws out murder charges against couple before case goes to jury.

April 12, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert | Kelly Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

Navy Aviation Storekeeper 3rd Class Peter J. Snyder said he felt "confused and hurt" when Naval Investigative Service agents told him and his wife, Vicki, early last year that they were suspected of having killed their 9-month-old daughter, Alyson.

"We just couldn't understand how they could suspect such a thing," he said.

Peter Snyder, 21, took the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week to share his feelings with the jury that had

been called on to decide his fate, and his wife's, on second-degree murder charges.

He told the panel how Alyson loved to ride on his shoulders, how she laughed when he threw her up into the air and caught her as she came down.

Shedding tears he could not control, Snyder said he went to Alyson's room the day she died, hoping to find her there alive. He played with her toys and looked at her clothes. Angry and frustrated by her death, he grabbed the clothes and threw them around the room.

He told the court, in a voice ripe with anguish, that he loved Alyson, that he would never have hurt her.

Vicki Snyder, also 21, testified briefly. Asked only one question by her attorney, she sharply denied withholding fluids from her infant daughter as a prosecutor and a medical examiner, who said Alyson died of dehydration, contended she did. And the young mother sharply denied telling the NIS agents things they attributed to her -- statements that indicated a cover-up -- about the night Alyson died.

Yesterday, Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray took the extremely rare step of acquitting the couple of the murder charges without giving the case to the trial jury for

deliberations.

"I don't believe the government has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Murray said, granting defense motions for acquittals. "I am satisfied that, if the case were submitted to the jury, the court would have to set aside any verdict of guilty."

The 1 1/2 -week trial was punctuated by innuendoes of child abuse and slovenly housekeeping in the Snyders' home at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Lexington Park. Friends of the Snyders testified to the contrary.

In the end, the case was decided on testimony from prosecution and defense experts who strongly disagreed about the cause of Alyson Snyder's death. The defense experts, and the Snyders, won.

Murray's action is almost unheard of in federal court, where judges routinely deny such motions and let juries decide guilt or innocence.

The judge said, however, that the "opinion" of Dr. Frank Peretti, the medical examiner who ruled Alyson's death a homicide, was "directly contradicted by two highly qualified defense experts who both concluded the child died of a meningococcic infection."

The judge also noted there was "no evidence from the government that the parents abused the child in any way."

As court adjourned, 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 angrily.

Johnston said 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."

Prosecutor Gregory Welsh declined to comment on Murray's decision. He said of Johnston's remarks, "Defense counsel have their view of the case and the government has its view. I wouldn't expect them to say anything other than what they've already said."

Peter Snyder said he was "relieved, happy, surprised" with Murray's decision.

"Our friends stuck by us. They knew we hadn't done anything. But we were suspected, then accused, and we had to put up with that."

After the accusations were lodged, Social Services officials had

forced the couple to give temporary custody of their older daughter, Amanda, now 3 1/2 and their son, Zachary, born last October, to Vicki Snyder's parents in Pennsylvania until the murder charges were resolved.

"We'd been accused, and we were being treated as if we were guilty until proven innocent," Peter Snyder said bitterly. "We were threatened, told that the kids would be put in foster homes if we brought them back to Maryland. That's no way to treat anyone."

During the trial, he said, "we were scared, because we had to go in front of 12 people to prove our innocence. I knew from the start I would testify. I wanted to express my feelings and let everyone know these accusations against us were just untrue."

By late yesterday, the Snyders were making plans to get Amanda and Zachary in Pennsylvania. They plan to move to Norfolk, Va., where Peter Snyder will go on duty on an aircraft carrier.

"I feel great," Vicki Snyder said, smiling broadly. "Now we want get on with our lives."

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