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Posted at 09:36 AM ET, 06/19/2012

The loss of a nephew to a violent crime causes a defense lawyer to question her beliefs in the absolute of civil liberties

During my nearly 10 years of practicing law, I have read many court decisions, some of which have kindled my intellectual curiosity and enhanced my knowledge of the law, while others have left me incensed and incredulous. But, no case has evoked the wide range of emotions, indeed personal pathos and reflection, as Dixon v. Maryland, handed down last week by the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
Dominick Dixon was found stripped and strangled in the Deanwood neighborhood of the District in 2006. (Courtesy of Joy Freeman-Coulbary)

 On September 24, 2006, the life of Dominick Dixon, my beloved nephew, 15 years my junior, came to a tragic and sudden end when he was strangled to death by Robert Crosby, then 51 — a convicted sex offender who had served two decades for the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Baltimore.

Crosby, who had been ordered to stay out of the District and refrain from contact with minors, was supposed to be under the supervision of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services sex offender branch to ensure that he complied with the terms and conditions of his release and registered as a sex offender as stipulated under Maryland law.

Crosby did not comply with the order. Two days later, Dominick was found stripped and strangled, abandoned in a lonely construction site in the Deanwood neighborhood of the District. I arrived on the scene as his body was being removed.  The department later acknowledged in court documents that they failed to monitor Crosby after his release from prison. 

 Although the Maryland Court of Appeals judges ruled Dixon's homicide “tragic” and chided the state for its “inept” and “lackadaisical” supervision of a known sex offender, the court ultimately ruled in the civil suit brought by my sister and her husband that it was not in their purview to determine Maryland's liability for its subpar supervision.   While as Dominick’s aunt, I find the determination of little solace, the whole tragedy was even more disconcerting because of my past life as a law clerk for the very group that helped argue against my nephew’s case.

I had been an investigative intern and law clerk for the very same D.C. Public Defender Service (PDS) that successfully defended the man who acknowledged asphyxiating my nephew during the criminal portion of the case. At the agency, I had been indoctrinated with the importance of zealous advocacy, sound criminal procedure and the right to counsel. 

Joy Freeman-Coulbany at her nephew's grave. (Courtesy of Joy Freeman-Coulbary)
 Admittedly, sitting through a trial during which my nephew's sweet and gentle character was being defamed, indeed lied about, in the name of self-defense, shook the very ramparts of those core beliefs. At trial, Crosby's videotaped confession to killing Dominick was thrown out over a procedural technicality — a police Miranda warning violation.  Previously I would have been highly appreciative of such Sixth and Fifth Amendment victories. However, in this instance, I was forced to reconcile with whether I still believed in the concept of broad Miranda rights against compelled self-incrimination.  I questioned whether the constitutional right to counsel during interrogation — which aided in setting my nephew’s killer free — should be so sacrosanct.  And had my ardent stance against the death penalty changed?

 During the criminal trial, I recoiled at autopsy photos shown to the jury of my nephew's twisted and knotted neck; of purple bruises, undoubtedly ligature marks since Dominick had been hog-tied by his killer; a nasty head injury; and skin slippage from decomposition.  Though the jury was privy to these graphic images, those same jurors were not allowed to know of Crosby's violent criminal past when determining whether he was guilty of Dominick's murder. All these procedural safeguards seemed a given before Dominick was killed in 2006.

As a someone who has survived losing a loved one to violence, criminal procedure had transitioned from the theoretical and third person to up-close and personal. Would I be able to continue defense work? Would I persist in believing and exhorting that the judicial system was stacked against the poor and minorities, given that my nephew's killer got a get-out-of-jail-free card with the assistance of one of the best public defenders offices in the nation?  I asked myself, what would Dominick advise — my reflective, BMX-riding nephew who loved to fish and be in the company of friends — and I knew given his thoughtful disposition that he wouldn't want his zealous auntie to transform philosophically.  

So, I came out of that tragedy the way I went in, believing in the importance of equal access to justice and in the constitutional protections I learned during summers as a law clerk. The experience, though tragic and transformative, reinforced my views about protecting our children, as well as maintaining the constitutional protections that safeguard our civil liberties and avoid an atmosphere of martial law.  And for me, that is the lesson I take from the tragic death of my nephew.

Joy Freeman-Coulbary, a Washingtonian, is a pacifist, lawyer and blogger. You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter @enJOYJFC.

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By Joy Freeman-Coulbary  |  09:36 AM ET, 06/19/2012

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