By Anne Saker

If an intimate partner strangles you, and you survive, you risk brain damage, injury to the

spine in your neck and other lasting health problems. Even worse, experts say,

strangulation almost always comes before a homicide.

 

Forty-eight states have acknowledged the unique threat of strangulation in domestic

violence by breaking out the crime from assault as its own felony. But Ohio is one of two

states that still does not consider strangulation a separate crime, despite six years of effort

in the legislature. Doctors, nurses, law enforcers and advocates have outlined the dangers,

not only to domestic violence survivors but to police officers.

 

The only public opponent of the proposal is the criminal defense bar, which fears giving

prosecutors another broad power that could be misused, perhaps against a mother

quieting a child or teenagers’ roughhousing.

It’s impossible to know how often strangulation occurs. Domestic violence advocates say

survivors frequently report that partners have strangled them, but they assume they won’t

be believed because they don’t have witnesses or visible injuries. A 2009 study in the

Journal of Emergency Medicine found that strangulation increased the risks of homicide

for a woman by more than 700%.

 

Strangulation that causes death is charged as homicide. In Ohio, strangulation that is not

fatal is charged either as misdemeanor assault or as domestic violence, also a

misdemeanor, with no prison time for a first conviction. Felonious assault, which does

carry a prison sentence, requires proof of intention to cause harm.

 

In 2019, Kentucky was the 48th state to make strangulation a felony. South Carolina is the

other holdout against toughened penalties, and the fact that Ohio has lagged is a source of

frustration for state Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard. She has been trying since 2015 to

make strangulation a felony.

 

“Back when I first introduced it, there were 37 or 38 states that had increased penalties,”

Kunze said. “I knew we were close to being dead last.”

 

Proposal has languished for years

 

Kunze wrote her first bill as a state House member, and she won passage 97-0 in 2016.

The legislation died in the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

In 2017, Kunze, by then a first-term senator, reintroduced her bill and pushed it to a 30-0

passage. The bill died in the House.

 

In 2019, Kunze and Democratic Sen. Nickie Antonio of Cleveland’s western suburbs tried

again. That bill died in the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

In 2020, the state House passed 94-0 a women’s protection bill that would have written

the word strangulation expressly into the domestic violence law. That bill died in the

Senate Judiciary Committee.

 

In October, the House passed that bill again, 92-4, and now it awaits consideration in the

Senate Judiciary Committee. Kunze also reintroduced her bill, and the judiciary

committee gave it a lengthy June hearing but has scheduled no additional action.

 

Testifying against the bill in June, the office of the Ohio Public Defender said criminal

defense lawyers agree the law should change. But the defenders say Kunze’s bill could

conceivably ensnare mothers who shush their children by covering their mouths or

brothers who grab each other’s necks in a wrestling match.

 

But Blaize Katter, the office’s public policy director, said last month, “When you’re down in

the weeds, we have concerns about the language that they’re using.” Yet, “We’re willing to

concede that in domestic violence, it’s slightly more serious. … We want to get to a yes on

this. We want to get to a point where we can support it.”

 

The state’s prosecuting attorneys are in favor. “It’s time for them to pass it. It’s

embarrassing at this point,” said Lou Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting

Attorneys Association.

 

Attorney General Dave Yost “believes Ohio should have a strangulation offense on the

books and that this offense should not be limited solely to members of your household,”

said spokesman Luke Sullivan.

 

Lasting consequences for victims

Kunze said the lack of progress over six years rests in “a misunderstanding of how severe

strangulation is, not to mention the predictor for homicide later.” At the June hearing,

doctors and nurses testified about “the disabilities that it causes, even if you are not

murdered.”

 

A victim of strangulation will suffer memory loss and poor emotional regulation, said Ruth

Downing, a forensic nurse in Delaware, Ohio, who has been pushing for legislation across

the United States since 2002. She trains police officers, prosecutors, judges, “anyone who

will listen to me.” Her message: A strangler often doesn’t leave marks, but science has

revealed the toll the victim endures.

 

“Hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing, episodes in which they do not recall what happened,

or that they were incontinent of urine. That is when they are very close to death. And they

may not even remember that they were unconscious,” Downing said. For people who

strangle partners, “It’s the ultimate form of power and control.”

 

For victims, “They know the next time, they may not survive. If we understand the

seriousness of strangulation and treat it appropriately as a felony, more victims of

domestic violence would come forward, and it could be the tipping point.”

 

Dr. Bill Smock, the surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and a national

expert on strangulation, counted out the relentless clock of strangulation. “You can render

someone unconscious in under 10 seconds. You can create brain damage in under one

minute and death between 1 ó and 2 minutes.”

 

Smock also has delved into strangulation as an omen for homicide for police officers. In

2017, he found that in 33 of 42 officer deaths, or 72%, the person who killed the police

officer had a history of strangulation.

 

As domestic violence has risen through the novel coronavirus pandemic, advocates say

more survivors are reporting they were strangled, said Kristin Shrimplin, president and

chief executive officer of Women Helping Women, the advocacy agency in Southwest Ohio.

 

“This an easy issue to address. This is really a change that can occur that should have

really good political will assigned to it,” Shrimplin said. “The lever to pull here to create

some hope and systemic change is to pull that lever from misdemeanor to felony. We need

a separate law so that there is a consequence that is commensurate with the level of

violence that has occurred.”

 

What a survivor wants to happen

Brenda Luper, 46, of Fairfield, said she still suffers from the strangulation she endured

five years ago from a boyfriend. “I felt like I was going to die. I actually passed out. He

actually had both hands around my neck, and when I (regained consciousness), he had his

whole arm around my neck.” She never reported the attack out of embarrassment and

fear.

 

Despite lingering health issues, she has moved on, started a new job, found a new

apartment. She wears purple lipstick for domestic violence awareness. The Ohio

Legislature, she said, needs to make strangulation a felony. “It’s a crime, and it should be

treated as such.”

 

Enquirer photojournalist Liz Dufour and USA TODAY Ohio Bureau reporter Jessie

Balmert contributed.

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