By: Glenn Smith

CLINTON, SC – Emily Joy knew something terrible had happened when she heard that police were on their way to the home of her daughter’s boyfriend in rural Clinton. The couple had a stormy relationship, and Joy was hoping her daughter would leave the young man.

She arrived to find paramedics huddled around 19-year-old Emily Anna. But it was too late. Her daughter was already gone. Her boyfriend had strangled her to death in her car with a USB computer cord during an argument.

Emily Anna’s friends would later tell Joy that her daughter’s boyfriend had choked her before, just a few days before the June 2013 killing — a red flag that went unnoticed, unpunished. That news stuck with Joy as she sat through a brutal trial and watched the boyfriend, Michael Beaty, get sentenced to life in prison for Emily Anna Asbill’s murder.

Joy has now made it her mission to raise awareness about non-fatal strangulation, a key indicator of escalating violence in a relationship. She is also traveling the state to build support for a proposed bill that would make strangulation a separate felony offense in South Carolina — as it is in 38 other states. It would be known as “EA’s law,” after her daughter.

“Emily Anna was so full of life. She had such a wonderful spirit and a beautiful soul,” Joy said. “I wanted to do something because I did not want my child to have died in vain.”

The Legislature changed state law in 2015 to make strangulation a qualifying offense for criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, a felony. That change was one several enacted in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till death do us part,” which chronicled South Carolina’s ignominious status as the nation’s deadliest state for women at the hands of men.

The change, however, did not elevate non-fatal strangulation to felony status in relation to other crimes, such as sexual assault, child abuse or ill treatment of a vulnerable adult.

The domestic violence law, as written, only applies to situations in which the victim loses consciousness, which does not always occur even when serious injuries are inflicted, said Brian Bennett, domestic violence instructor with the state Criminal Justice Academy. The domestic violence law also does not cover romantic partners unless they are married or live together. That leaves a number of victims unprotected, he said.

Joy wanted to do something to address the issue and found a willing partner in Michael Polson, a veteran police officer who recently became the first domestic violence investigator at the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office.

Polson knew Emily Anna and her death hit him hard. He had seen his mother suffer domestic abuse when he was a small boy, and the experience drove him to seek out ways to better protect victims. “It opened up a calling in my life,” he said.

Polson teamed up with Bennett, considered to be the state’s foremost law enforcement expert on strangulation, and the two men dug deep into other states’ laws as they worked to craft potential legislation for South Carolina. The end result was a bill that would make it a felony to manually restrict someone’s breathing or blood flow by choking, punishable by up to five years in prison.

“This law, I believe it’s going to save lives,” Polson said.

‘A very serious crime’

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican, agreed to sponsor the legislation and intends to fight for its approval. Shealy was a key player in the 2015 domestic violence reform effort, riveting the chamber when she shared an account of her sister’s near-murder at the hands of an abusive husband. She was touched by Joy’s story of Emily Anna and offered to help.

A similar strangulation bill died without a vote in the legislative session that ended last June, but Shealy said that may be because it was introduced rather late in the process. She is hopeful about their chances this time. But Shealy said she also is aware that the bill must survive the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has a number of lawmakers who are criminal defense attorneys. They are often wary of efforts to increase penalties or criminalize new offenses, she said.

“We need to do this right, because it’s a very serious crime,” she said. “And if we don’t do these things and try to stand up for victims, who else is going to do it?”

Republican Sen. Luke Rankin, an Horry County attorney who chairs the Judiciary Committee, did not return a call from The Post and Courier seeking comment on the measure.

Supporters say the key to winning the bill’s passage will be increasing awareness about strangulation, an often misunderstood crime that police and medical personnel don’t always spot and prosecutors can balk at taking to trial.

Bennett said many people assume non-fatal strangulation must leave behind tell-tale bruises or cuts, but that’s not always the case. The injuries are often internal, leading to permanent complications or even death days after the fact, he said.

“The big misconception is that if you strangle someone there are external signs of that when, in reality, there are often very few — if any — signs present,” he said.

What’s more, the pressure on an artery needed to restrict blood blow to the brain and render someone unconscious is less than what’s required to pull the trigger of a standard police duty pistol, Bennett said. But while a gunman might face an attempted murder charge for shooting at someone, a would-be killer who uses his hands might face a misdemeanor. “And the risk of death is actually the same,” he said.

Joy and Polson have been drumming up support for the bill in talks around the state and through an online petition drive that has gathered nearly 600 signatures. Joy also has traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk with members of the state’s congressional delegation about introducing federal strangulation legislation. It would be a fitting tribute to her daughter and the life she lived, Joy said.

“She helped so many people, young and old, in so many situations,” she said. “This how I want to remember her.”

Article Source: Emily Anna was strangled to death by her boyfriend. Now, her mother is pushing to make strangulation a felony in S.C.