Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who last week criticized State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey over the handling of a domestic violence case that ended in a murder-suicide, yesterday appeared to make peace with Ivey as the two pledged to work together to prevent such tragedies in the future.
"We're looking at every part of the [justice] system" to find ways to improve the handling of spousal abuse cases, Johnson said at a news conference with Ivey and other county law enforcement officials in Upper Marlboro. Johnson addressed the case of Tyrone Dyson, a domestic violence defendant who made a deal March 10 to avoid prosecution and a day later killed his wife and himself. "All of us are disheartened," Johnson said. "It was a failure."
But, he added, "We're not saying anyone is responsible for that failure."
In a radio interview last week, Johnson (D), who was elected county executive in November after eight years as state's attorney, said that he had "never allowed someone who had battered a spouse to walk out of my courtroom" and that Dyson "never should have walked" free. Ivey (D) declined to engage in a public spat, saying after the radio program that he was "not interested in a blame game." But sources said he was angry that Johnson had questioned the competence of his office.
Yesterday, as Johnson arrived for the news conference in the County Administration Building, he quickly patted Ivey on the back and the two promised to work together. Ivey said he hoped to persuade judicial officials to create a separate court docket for domestic violence cases, which would be overseen by a judge who would gain expertise in such cases. He also said he is considering forming a domestic violence team in his office, headed by a senior prosecutor.
Improving the system will be difficult, Ivey said. "But I want to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again."
Numerous times, Tyrone Dyson choked, beat and threatened to kill the women in his life. In 11 years, Anne Arundel County authorities filed more than 20 charges against him stemming from assaults against six women. Yet again and again, prosecutors made deals with Dyson in which he pleaded guilty, sometimes to lesser charges, in exchange for little or no jail time.
On March 10 -- several weeks after being jailed for allegedly assaulting his wife, Ernestine, and threatening to kill her and himself -- Dyson, 32, made another deal, this time with Prince George's authorities. He promised to stay away from his wife, and in return, Ivey's office agreed to suspend prosecution of him. If Dyson did not commit any crime in the future, the charges were to have been dropped. Ernestine Dyson, 32, consented to the deal.
About 24 hours later, Tyrone Dyson fatally shot Ernestine Dyson in her Oxon Hill home, then turned the gun on himself.
The suicide threat, in addition to Dyson's history of domestic violence, should have been a red flag to prosecutors, said Lydia Watts, director of Women Empowered Against Violence.
"Prosecutors can weigh previous threats to kill in deciding whether to go forward with a case -- if they know about the threats," said Watts, whose group helps domestic abuse victims obtain civil protective orders and other services.
Although Prince George's prosecutors knew that Tyrone Dyson had a history of domestic violence, and knew what he had been charged with and what he had pleaded guilty to in Anne Arundel, they were not aware of the specifics of each case. That is because the criminal complaints in each case, including such statements as, "I do believe he is going to kill me," were in case jackets in Anne Arundel and not immediately available to Prince George's authorities, not even by computer.
It is a problem faced by prosecutors across the Washington region. In Maryland, Virginia and the District, prosecutors can only find limited information about previous domestic assaults in other jurisdictions from criminal justice computer databases.
In Anne Arundel, the leniency that prosecutors and judges showed Dyson, despite a series of domestic assaults and death threats, is typical of the way the system often deals with such cases, according to advocates for domestic violence victims. Although Dyson assaulted or threatened to kill women eight times in Anne Arundel, he was never jailed for more than a few months in any of those cases. He got a longer term -- five years, with all but 18 months suspended -- for a purse snatching.
"Domestic violence is the only crime in which the victim of the crime will actually work against the prosecutor," said Anne Arundel prosecutor Michael R. Cogan, referring to an assault charge filed against Dyson in October 2000. When it came time for the case to go to trial, the victim wanted it dropped. Her District Court advocate, one of four in the county who work exclusively with domestic violence victims and state prosecutors, wrote in the case file, "Complainant VERY angry at [state's attorney's office] -- won't testify, doesn't remember."
"Should this guy have gotten more jail time?" Cogan asked. "More serious jail time? Yes. This guy's an abuser."
Like previous victims, Ernestine Dyson did not want her husband prosecuted; she wanted only to be left alone.
That is a common occurrence in such cases, said Watts, the advocate for abuse victims.
"Mr. Dyson is more likely to have been treated more harshly if he had assaulted a stranger in a bar fight," she said.