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May 9, 2017

In 2008, the Journal of Emergency Medicine studied domestic violence cases where women were strangled nonfatally by their partners, and the results were chilling.

They found they were much more likely to be killed later by their partners, by as much as seven times. Researchers also found 43 percent of women who were ultimately murdered by their partners had been choked in the years prior to their death.

At first glance, the need for a law increasing the penalty for nonfatal strangulation might seem unnecessary. Wouldn’t placing your hands on someone else’s throat and squeezing to the point where they are unconscious or close to it be covered when simple or aggravated assault charges are brought? Some defense attorneys think such a law is unnecessary, overly broad and will eventually be overturned. We’ll see. In the meantime, we believe the creation of this law was imperative because of the gravity of the offense.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the law last year making nonfatal strangulation a felony offense. By doing so, Pennsylvania joined the overwhelming majority of states that have placed similar statutes on the books. Before the law went into effect, most domestic abuse cases resulted in misdemeanor simple assault charges or, for cases where injuries were severe, felony charges of aggravated assault. But nonfatal strangulation merits the additional sanctions.

First, choking someone is more than just frightening. Even if it doesn’t result in death, injuries might not be readily apparent. Kristin Clingerman, an assistant district attorney in Washington County, pointed out that complications could arise as much as three days after the incident, including blood clots. “Their throats could later swell and they could suffocate,” she said. Neurological problems can also develop, and amnesia can take root because of oxygen deprivation, along with depression or even psychosis. While shoving or even slapping someone is nothing to take lightly, strangulation is clearly of a different order of magnitude.

Clingerman also pointed out to the Observer-Reporter’s Kathie O. Warco Tierne Ewing, who was killed by her estranged husband in a barn in West Finley Township last August, had also been choked prior to her death.

It’s important that first responders are trained to spot the signs of strangulation or suffocation, which involves an object like a pillow or hand being placed over a victim’s nose or mouth. Clingerman explained she tells police to look for, among other things, missing hair “because abusers also pull out hair. Look for lumps on the back of the head. The abuser may have put a forearm against the throat of the victim, pushing them against a wall.” Broken blood vessels are another telltale sign.

Not all that long ago, domestic violence was not accorded the seriousness it deserves. As recently as 1964, researchers published a paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry claiming that abusive relationships were therapeutic because the brawling would allow them to “balance out each other’s mental quirks.”

We’ve come a long way since then, and we should be thankful for that.