By: Heather Mongilio
CARROLL COUNTY, MD –
The Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Westminster Police Department are leading training on strangulation investigations as the organizations look to bring the county to the forefront of domestic violence enforcement.
The two organizations are hosting three training sessions on the signs, investigation and prosecution of strangulation and domestic violence, with the first having been held June 7. Members of local law enforcement agencies and members of the State’s Attorney’s Office gathered in the Fraternal Order of Police building to hear from Assistant State’s Attorney Brenda Harkavy, forensic nurse Rosalyn Berkowitz and Baltimore County Police Officer Darrin Kelly.
The training focused on what to look for during strangulation investigations, as well as bringing attention to strangulation as a possible first-degree assault.
“Because often [police officers are] the first person on the scene, and it’s important they understand the potential lethality of strangulation in order to encourage victims to seek assessment by trained medical personnel,” Berkowitz said.
Strangulation cases are difficult because bruises and marks don’t usually show up immediately, and strangulation, despite having the potential to be fatal, is not specifically included under first-degree assault in Maryland, the three presenters said. There is also no statute just for strangulation, Harkavy said.
Strangulation can be tried as first-degree assault, but without strangulation language in first-degree assault it makes it harder for prosecutors to get a guilty conviction. Officers and commissioners, who decide the charge, also don’t always understand the serious nature of strangulation, which means it might not initially be charged as first-degree assault.
Kelly has been working to get Maryland to specifically include strangulation in first-degree assault, but so far the state has not changed its laws.
“The reason we’re trying to get it here is it is a lethal assault,” Kelly said.
Under Maryland statute, assault is defined as “the crimes assault, battery, and assault and battery.” To commit first-degree assault, a person must commit or attempt to commit an act with the intention of causing serious physical injury to another or commit assault with a firearm, according to Maryland code.
Without it being defined in the first-degree assault code or given its own statute, prosecutors have to prove that the strangulation does fall under physical serious injury, Harkavy said.
It can be difficult to prove, especially when a jury is involved, because not all cases of strangulation have blatant signs of injuries. This means that prosecutors have to call an expert to testify on the damage caused by strangulation, she said.
The lack of injury evidence on a person can also make it difficult for the officers who are investigating the domestic violence call, said Lt. Nikki Heuer-Sales of the Westminster Police Department. Heuer-Sales approached Harkavy about bringing strangulation training to the county, she said.
“A lot of times when officers respond to domestic violence calls, we’re looking for physical symptoms,” Heuer-Sales said.
Physical signs of injury do not appear in more than half of victims, and death can occur whether or not there is evidence of strangulation, Berkowitz said during her presentation.
In many cases, the victim will be more animated or hysterical, which can make them look as if they are lying. Abusers, on the other hand, will often be calm, which makes them appear more trustworthy, Harkavy said during her presentation.
It is common for victims to make light of strangulation when talking with officers, Berkowitz said.
“Everyone minimizes it. Victims minimize it,” she said during the training.
When a person is being strangled, they often cannot believe it’s happening and describe it as an out-of-body experience. Many of the victims Berkowitz spoke with told her that their thoughts were of their children.
“It’s really a terrifying experience,” she said.
And the force needed to strangle someone is considerably less than many might assume. It can take about 4.4 psi for 10-30 seconds to strangle someone into unconsciousness if they have blocked off the jugular vein, Berkowitz said during her presentation, while it takes 11 psi for 10-20 seconds to block the carotid arteries and cause someone to fall unconscious.
“It really doesn’t take a lot of pressure to kill someone by strangling them,” Berkowitz told officers.
In comparison, an average male adult’s handshake takes 80-100 psi, it takes 20 psi to open a soda can and it takes 6 pounds of pressure to pull a handgun trigger, she said.
“It takes less to strangle someone than it does to fire your gun,” Berkowitz told the officers. “Just some perspective.”
It was the amount of pressure, or lack thereof — as well as the lack of evidence — that surprised Maryland State Police Capt. Holly Barrett.
Barrett, who is the domestic violence coordinator for Maryland State Police, said she came to the training because it is important to stay up-to-date on information, and she walked away learning a lot from the training.
“I didn’t realize you could have strangulation that could cause death in under four minutes without any physical signs,” Barrett said.
The State’s Attorney’s Office and Westminster Police Department will hold the second session of its training for law enforcement Thursday and the third on June 29. The second and third sessions will cover the same information presented in the first one.
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