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Walter Snyder

Other Virgina False Confession Cases
At about 1:30 a.m. on October 28, 1985, a 35-year-old woman was awakened in the bedroom of her home in Alexandria, Virginia, when a light was turned on and she saw a man. After three to five seconds, the man turned off the light and sexually assaulted her while holding a diaper over her face.

The following day Alexandria Police Detective Barry Shiftic was assigned to investigate the crime. During an initial interview, the victim, who was white, identified her assailant as a Black male who wore a pair of red shorts, a gray sweatshirt, and white tennis shoes. She also reported that the assailant had smooth and soft hands. The victim did not report seeing the assailant’s face.

Shiftic interviewed the victim’s neighbors. Two said that they had seen 19-year-old Walter Snyder Jr., who was Black and lived across the street from the victim, standing shirtless in his front yard a few hours before the crime took place. Shiftic then went to Snyder’s home and spoke with his mother, Edith L. Snyder. She told the detective that she had not noticed anything unusual prior to the crime. She also mentioned that Snyder’s brother, Christopher, was awake at the time the police arrived at the victim’s house.

On October 29, 1985, Shiftic visited T.J. Fannon and Sons, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning contractor where Snyder worked. Snyder agreed to go to the police station. Shiftic asked Snyder whether he owned red shorts and white tennis shoes. Snyder said he did. While at the police station, Snyder also agreed to being fingerprinted and photographed.

On November 8, 1985, a search warrant was issued for Snyder’s residence based on an affidavit signed by Shiftic stating that the witnesses had seen Snyder wearing a gray sweatshirt which fit the victim’s description of the assailant’s clothing. During the search, a pair of Snyder’s red boxing shorts and white tennis shoes were seized; however, a gray sweatshirt was not found. v That same day, Shiftic presented a photographic lineup to the victim. She tentatively selected Snyder’s photograph, but said she was uncertain. The photograph of Snyder used in the lineup was a headshot rather than a full body photo.

Three days later, on November 11, the victim saw Snyder washing his car while wearing red shorts similar to those of her assailant. She called the police and said that Snyder’s thighs looked familiar.

On January 29, 1986, Snyder went to the Alexandria Police Department to reclaim his belongings taken during the search. Shiftic refused, saying that the belongings were considered evidence and were being examined at a laboratory.

The following day, January 30, 1986, Snyder went to the police station and again asked for his clothing. Shiftic asked Detective George Burnham to take Snyder to the lobby and wait with Snyder there. Shiftic then called the victim and asked her to come down to the station. When she arrived, she saw Snyder and identified him as her assailant. Snyder was then arrested.

Shiftic and Burnham, joined by Detective Russell Peverall, handcuffed Snyder to a chair and interrogated him. During the interrogation, Snyder denied committing the crime and said that he would never commit a rape because he wanted to model Jesus Christ. The detectives contended that during the interrogation, Snyder confessed. However, there was never any record, written or otherwise, documenting that claim. Snyder denied he confessed to the crime.

During the interrogation, Shiftic removed hairs from Snyder’s head. When Snyder blew the hairs off the table, Snyder claimed Shiftic struck him in the face. At one point, police said Snyder attempted to leave the room, still handcuffed to the chair. He was restrained by the officers, and, in the process, suffered a broken nose and an injured shoulder.

Additionally, Shiftic pulled down Snyder’s pants and removed a pubic hair. Snyder claimed that the officers then dragged him into a public area of the police station with his pants still down to his ankles.

On January 30, 1986, Snyder was charged with rape, sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, and breaking and entering.

Prior to the trial, the defense filed a motion to suppress evidence gathered during the search of Snyder’s home because there was no probable cause for the warrant. To obtain the warrant, Shiftic had signed an affidavit saying that witnesses had seen Snyder wearing a gray sweatshirt. The motion claimed Shiftic had pressured the witnesses to change their statements that Snyder was shirtless to say that Snyder was wearing a gray sweatshirt to dovetail with the victim’s description of her assailant.

That motion was denied.

The defense also filed a motion arguing that the victim’s identification of Snyder in the police department’s lobby was unconstitutionally suggestive. The motion said the identification was the result of a “show-up” identification in which a victim is presented with only one suspect. Another defense motion asserted that the public hair removed during the interrogation was an unreasonable seizure because Shiftic had forcibly removed the pubic hair while Snyder was being restrained by other officers.

These motions also were denied.

On June 23, 1986, Snyder went to trial in Alexandria City Circuit Court. He was represented by Bobby Stafford, a private criminal defense attorney from Alexandria.

The prosecution presented testimony that the pubic hair could have belonged to Snyder. A laboratory technician testified that, based on serology testing, Snyder and her assailant were both type A secretors. An emergency room nurse, a doctor, a police officer, and a fingerprint technician also testified for the prosecution.

On June 24, the defense filed a motion to suppress Snyder’s alleged confession, arguing that the police had not read Snyder his Miranda warnings. That motion was denied.

Detective Burnham testified that Snyder had said that he was Jesus Christ, not that he was modeling Jesus Christ. The officers also testified that Snyder confessed to using phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP), an animal tranquilizer also referred to on the street as “angel dust,” on the night of the crime. Detective Shiftic testified that the use of that drug was an explanation for Snyder’s comment about being Jesus Christ.

When the victim testified, the prosecution showed a photograph of her bedroom, prompting her to burst into tears. She pointed at Snyder and told the jury that Snyder was her rapist. She also testified that her assailant smelled like alcohol, smoke, and a combination of oil and basement.

Snyder testified that he was asleep at the time of the attack. He denied confessing to the crime and denied that he claimed to be Jesus Christ. To rebut the victim’s description of her attacker’s hands as soft and smooth, Snyder showed the jury his hands which were full of calluses due to his occupation.

Snyder’s brother Christopher testified that Snyder was home in bed at the time of the assault.

On June 25, 1986, the jury convicted Snyder of all of the charges. That same day Judge Alfred Swersky imposed the 45-year sentence that the jury had recommended.

On June 5, 1990, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the convictions and sentence.

Snyder petitioned the Supreme Court of Virginia to file a further appeal, but the petition was denied.

That same year, Snyder read an article in a news magazine about the use of DNA testing in England. His mother, Edith, telephoned the British scientist mentioned in the article. Eventually, she connected with Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, who agreed to take the case. In 1992, a private company conducted DNA testing on the semen. The testing excluded Snyder as the source of the semen.

Neufeld contacted Randolph Sengal, a prosecutor at the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and informed him of the test results. Sengal requested that the DNA test be repeated. The evidence was sent to the Center for Blood Research (CBR) in Boston to repeat the test. On October 28, 1992, the CBR reported that the DNA found on the vaginal swab from the rape kit was not Snyder’s DNA. The prosecution asked the FBI to look at the test results. The FBI agreed with the methodology and confirmed the results.

Snyder was not released, however, because of a highly restrictive state statute which required that new evidence had to be introduced within 21 days of the conviction. As a result, Snyder was precluded from seeking to vacate his conviction in court. The only path was to seek a gubernatorial pardon. The prosecution joined the defense in requesting the pardon from Governor L. Douglas Wilder.

On April 23, 1993, Snyder was granted an absolute pardon and was released that day. Snyder had been imprisoned for seven years.

Snyder also petitioned to have his record expunged, which the Alexandria City Circuit Court granted on January 11, 1994.

After his release, Snyder filed a complaint with the Alexandria Police Department alleging police misconduct in the investigation of the crime. That complaint was denied when Police Chief Charles E. Samarra concluded that the officers had followed and complied with the department’s guidelines and policies.

In April 1994, Snyder filed a suit in U.S. District Court against the city of Alexandria and Officers Shiftic, Burnham, and Peverall.

U.S. Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the police officers and the prosecution were protected by immunity.

On February 15, 1996, the state legislature passed a bill awarding Snyder $11,200 in compensation.

In August 2017, Snyder died of a heart attack at the age of 51.

–Dulce Pérez Zavala

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 8/21/2019
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1985
Sentence:45 years
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes