In South Carolina courts before 1996, a prison sentence of “life” for rape and murder didn’t really mean life in prison.
Two life sentences plus 30 years didn’t mean life, either.
And in the early 1990s, DNA was almost unheard of and new to courts.
So because courts didn’t always tell the plain truth in sentencing, and science has evolved,Jerry Snyder, 73, father of a 22-year-old daughter raped and shot in the head in 1990 in Rock Hill, will go to the South Carolina’s parole board on Wednesday. His goal is simple: keep the man who raped his daughter in jail for life.
“I am going to do all I can to make sure there remains justice for my daughter,” Snyder said. “This guy didn’t just get one life sentence, he got two. Plus 30 years. Life in prison should mean just that. Life until dead. End of story.”
On Wednesday Edward Cronell, a former real estate agent now 48 years old, is scheduled to appear before the S.C. Parole and Pardons Board for a hearing that, theoretically, could put Cronell back on the streets despite being sentenced to two life terms, plus 30 years, for burglary and the rape and murder of Melinda Snyder.
Cronell was convicted 20 years ago next week after a three-year legal fight by police, prosecutors and Jerry Snyder to force Cronell to give a DNA sample. Cronell, a suspect in the case that was unsolved for more than three years, was not arrested until 1993 when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that he had to give a blood sample to compare DNA to semen found at the crime scene.
“We fought for years to get that done,” Snyder said.
After the killing, the Snyder family hired a private lawyer, Rock Hill’s Jim Morton, to help the newly elected prosecutor in 1994, Tommy Pope. The 1994 trial was before Pope became a nationally famous for the trial of Susan Smith , who drowned her kids after initially claiming a man kidnapped them.
Even in that era when DNA technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today, DNA proved that Cronell was one in 230,000 people who could have committed the crime.
“The technology is far more advanced now, but the bottom line is his DNA was a match,” Pope said.
In January 1990, Melinda Snyder, daughter of Geretha and Jerry Snyder, was a recent Winthrop University graduate working as a teacher assistant. The house she lived in was for sale. She had just broken up with her longtime boyfriend and was set to move to Ohio to be nearer her parents.
“She was coming here on a Friday and he killed her on a Tuesday morning,” Jerry Snyder said. “He had keys to the lock box for the door.”
That key to the door in the lock box was key, Pope said. It showed Cronell had access to the home. Cronell had showed the home to prospective buyers just days before. Melinda Snyder was home that day, and Jerry Snyder remains convinced that Cronell decided to come back and harm his daughter after that meeting.
During the trial, prosecutors showed that Snyder’s roommate, who discovered her shot in the head and partially unclothed, also saw a car matching the description of Cronell’s leave the scene.
Several people testified that Cronell on the night before the killing, had been in an altercation after drinking at a party in Tega Cay. Yet the DNA was the key to Cronell’s prosecution.
“I worked that case for three years with Rock Hill detectives,” said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, who at the time was a State Law Enforcement Division agent. “There is zero doubt, none, from the investigation and the DNA, that the man convicted of the crime was guilty. He had sex and revenge on his mind.”
Cronell, who did not testify and did not admit guilt, tried to blame his lawyer for the conviction during a 1998 lawsuit. That suit failed.
In 2002 Cronell filed a federal lawsuit, again claiming his lawyer botched the trial. That case was dismissed after S.C. Attorney General’s Office prosecutors successfully argued that DNA evidence showed Cronell was not just guilty, but guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.”
Jerry Snyder has waited at home outside Cincinnati for this day to come when he knew Cronell would gets his legally required chance at freedom despite a sentence of two life terms plus 30 years.
“No parent wants to have to relive it all over again, but that is what we have to do,” Snyder said.
Officials with the Rock Hill Police Department are also expected to attend the parole hearing and argue that Cronell should not be released.
Cronell is now eligible for yearly parole hearings, because before changes to the law in 1996, any life sentence had parole eligibility after 20 years despite prosecutors being barred from telling juries that before 1996.
“Before what is called ‘Truth in sentencing’ laws took effect in 1996, murder defendants were eligible for parole after 20 years,” said Pete O’Boyle spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services. “The crime happened in 1990 so the law at that time is what has to be used to determine parole.”
Cronell can speak on his own behalf, and have others speak for him, and claim he has served his debt to society and should be given a chance at freedom. Bryant, the current sheriff who solved the case along with Rock Hill Police Department investigators John Thickens and Les Herring, said he will attend the hearing and argue against parole.
“This is an individual that really concerns me for the public’s safety if he is released, because of how that crime was committed,” Bryant said. “It was violent, brutal.”
The seven-member parole board generally releases about 15 percent of violent offenders, but first-time releases for violent offenders, including murder convictions, are extremely rare, O’Boyle said. If all seven parole board members are in attendance, five would have to vote to release Cronell, according to O’Boyle. If six attend, four would have to vote for release, O’Boyle said.
Cronell’s hearing is set for 9 a.m Wednesday. The parole board hearing is not meant for Cronell to attempt to re-try the case, but for the board to determine if Cronell should be released into society, O’Boyle said.
Yet admitting guilt and showing contrition is not the only thing that can lead to release.
In 2006, Sterling Spann of Clover, who had spent 17 years on death row while proclaiming innocence, was paroled after pleading guilty under a special circumstance called an Alford plea. That allows a guilty plea without admitting guilt, but acknowledging evidence against someone.
Spann made an Alford plea in 2003, for the 1981 slaying of an elderly Clover woman. Spann – who had the backing of a Connecticut millionaire and heavy-hitting lawyers who all said he was innocent despite prosecutors and police having ample evidence of the crime and the Alford plea – was paroled in his third parole hearing. The parole board unanimously voted against Spann the first time, deadlocked the second time, and released him the third time. The release on a murder charge came despite Spann never admitting guilt.
Cronell has had no disciplinary problems in prison, Department of Corrections records show. He worked as a Department of Corrections gardener and librarian and for almost nine years he was a teacher’s assistant.
Melinda Snyder was a teacher assistant at the time she was raped and murdered.
Jerry Snyder and his wife will be at the hearing Wednesday – and at any other hearings, as long as Edward Cronell is alive and trying to get out of prison. The Snyders moved from Rock Hill just a few years before their daughter was killed.
“He killed my daughter, he waited for her and he assaulted her and he killed her, and he should die in prison because of it,” Jerry Snyder said. “End of story.”