By: Chris Lindahl

HADLEY, MA — Strangulation as part of domestic violence does not always end in murder. But former prosecutor Casey Gwinn said Thursday that homicide and those non-fatal acts are closely linked.

“When a man puts his hand around a woman’s neck and applies pressure to her neck, he has just raised his hand and said ‘I’m a killer,’” Gwinn said. “It doesn’t mean he’s necessarily trying to kill her at that time, however. It means that he wants her to know he can kill her any time he wants.”

Gwinn spoke at a daylong conference on non-fatal strangulation cases hosted by the Northwestern district attorney’s office. The event was attended by some 175 people representing social service programs, courts, five district attorney’s offices and 20 police agencies.

Gwinn, a former San Diego prosecutor, is the president and co-founder of domestic violence nonprofit Alliance for HOPE International. Through the alliance’s Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, Gwinn teaches law enforcement officials and others how to identify, investigate and prosecute non-fatal strangulation offenses – because statistics show that victims of those crimes are much more likely to be murdered at a later time.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the conference helped highlight the importance of giving attention to the severity of domestic violence. “The majority of our domestic violence cases have involved non-fatal strangulation,” he said in an interview at the conference.

Gwinn said in the past, law enforcement has failed to recognize the significance of such cases. Often perpetrated by men against women, non-fatal strangulation is the act of successfully or attempting to cut off someone’s air supply as a means to gain control over that person. Only about 50 percent of victims show visible injuries.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that victims of prior strangulation are 750 percent more likely of becoming a homicide victim than others.

Gwinn’s own study of 10 officer-involved shootings in Treasure Valley, Idaho, found that 80 percent of the suspects had a history of domestic violence acts and 30 percent were involved with non-fatal strangulation.

Non-fatal strangulation cases historically have been hard to deal with by law enforcement and the courts due to the offenses not fitting into existing statutes. But over the last two decades, the federal government and some three dozen states have passed felony strangulation laws, Gwinn said.

In Massachusetts, then-Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014 signed into law a bill that created a new criminal charge of suffocation and strangulation. Sullivan said these offenses previously had to be prosecuted under domestic assault and battery or attempted murder charges.

Gwinn pointed to the 2008 shooting of Sgt. Paul Starzyk of the Martinez, California, Police Department. While trying to save three women and three children in a domestic violence situation, Starzyk was fatally shot by Felix Sandoval.

Sandoval’s estranged wife had a restraining order against him as a result of his previously strangling her. That fact could have tipped off police that Sandoval was willing to kill, Gwinn said.

Such cases show the need for law enforcement agencies to collaborate, specifically in regard to non-lethal strangulation, Gwinn said.

The Northwestern district attorney’s office, which includes Hampshire and Franklin counties, created a domestic violence high risk team in 2010.

“It brings together law enforcement, the jail, probation and batterers’ intervention to look at the most lethal domestic violence cases,” the team’s coordinator, Mary Kociela said in an interview.

First-responders in the district are trained to identify perpetrators who are at high risk of further offenses and can refer such cases to the team. Police departments have checklists that they can attach to reports of domestic violence to calculate risk. High-risk behaviors include threatening to kill someone, strangulation, use or threatening to use a weapon, mental health issues and a history of violence against intimate partners.

Kociela said police use the checklists about 50 percent of the time and the office aims to increase that number. She said it increases the safety of survivors and increases success in prosecution of their abusers.

Source article: Non-fatal strangulation cases topic of DA’s conference