Father won suit, lost his once-quiet demeanor

The Baltimore Sun

YORK, Pa. -- On the day after a federal jury in Baltimore sided with Albert Snyder in his lawsuit against a church that picketed his son's funeral, a former co-worker left Snyder a phone message.

She said, in essence, she didn't think he had it in him.

For a long time, Snyder hadn't thought he did either.

Snyder, in fact, knew the phone message reflected what colleagues, friends and family thought of him:

Until his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, died in Iraq, and until members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., appeared outside the funeral with hate-laced signs, Albert Snyder says he was more pushover than rabble-rouser.

"All my life, I let people walk over me up until a point; then I'd just say, 'Please don't do that,'" Snyder said. "That's the way I've always been."

Wednesday afternoon, a year and a half after his son's funeral, Snyder stood before microphones outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore, while network news shows scrambled to hear his reaction to the $10.9 million verdict and secure his presence for the next morning's news shows.

He was not formally dressed. He did not have a speech. Wearing an open-necked shirt and speaking in low tones, he took satisfaction in the courtroom result, saying that his struggle would make it easier for other military families.

Jurors had unanimously agreed that Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, and two of his daughters breached Snyder's privacy and intentionally inflicted pain on Snyder when they waved anti-gay signs on public property in Westminster in March 2006.

The Phelpses contend that military deaths in Iraq are punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and gays in the military.

For years, Westboro members have traveled the country, waving attention-grabbing placards bearing messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers" at funerals of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Matthew Snyder's sexual orientation was not an issue in the protest, the Phelps family said, and Snyder's father said his son was not gay.

The verdict was the first successful civil claim against the Westboro congregation.

Since the jury's decision this week, Snyder's once-quiet life has been disrupted by countless interview requests, some coming from as far away as Australia, he says.

Thousands have e-mailed him offering congratulations, and he has become a minor celebrity in York.

Yesterday, sitting in his attorney's office, Snyder said he longed for the day when he can go back to his anonymous life and return to work as a salesman.

"The outpouring has been unbelievable," said Snyder, a soft-spoken man who seems to measure his words carefully. "I've gotten letters and e-mails from all over the world, from Finland, from Germany."

Phelps and his daughters say they have been threatened and generally request police protection when they protest, but never had the church been sued before Snyder hatched the idea during a routine meeting with his lawyer last year.

Snyder, 52, did not see the seven members of Westboro protest his son's funeral.

But the ensuing news coverage and Internet postings by one of Phelps' daughters about his son disturbed him and deepened his depression.

Snyder said he asked his lawyer if he could take any action.

The case was hardly an easy one. The U.S. Constitution offers broad free-speech protections, even for speech that is considered obnoxious.

But Snyder's lawyer referred him to Sean E. Summers, who took the case pro bono because he believed that if he could get the case before a jury he had a good chance of winning.

"I talked to many families after we sued about whether they were going to file a similar suit," Summers said.

"The reality is litigation is very intensive. It just drains a person, especially when you add the factor of dredging up the funeral experience.

"It can be excruciatingly painful to go through."

Twice during the ensuing months, Snyder said he considered dropping the case. Fighting did not come naturally to him, he says.

And when Summers told Snyder he would have to release his medical records and put parts of his personal life on public display, Snyder remembers he was ready to call it quits.

But after an hour's conversation, Snyder said he found the strength from his son's spirit.

"Matt was more of a fighter. He was the protector. He always tried to help the little guy, the underdog," said Snyder, who has two daughters, Sarah, 23, and Traci, 19.

Snyder grew up in South Baltimore, where he lived for 27 years before moving to Westminster, then York.

His parents, both in their 80s, live in Catonsville.

Snyder's mother, after hearing that her son was mounting a case against the Phelpses, pleaded with him to "let it go."

Perhaps under different circumstances, he would have.

But Snyder said he knew that Matthew would have wanted him to fight, and now Snyder says he plans to keep after the Phelps family until the "day I'm not on this Earth.

"I will hound them for the money so they can't do this to anybody else."

"I'm a different person after this experience," he said.

"I'll speak up and not let people walk over me."


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