Strangulation is the ultimate form of power and control — where abusers control the victim’s next breath.
And it is also the best predictor of future homicide of victims of domestic violence, police and victim advocates say.
Legislation this year for the first time makes strangulation a crime in Massachusetts — a long-sought change among police, prosecutors and victim advocates.
The law established an offense for strangulation and suffocation and establishes a penalty of up to five years in state prison, up to 2½ years in a house of correction, by a fine of up to $5,000 or by both a fine and imprisonment.
Aggravated strangulation/suffocation carries a penalty of imprisonment in state prison no more than 10 years or in a house of correction no more than 2½ years and a fine of no more than $10,000.
Aggravated strangulation is charged when there is serious bodily injury or the defendant knows the victim is pregnant, it’s a second or subsequent offense or the defendant knows the victim has an outstanding abuse prevention order.
Years of frustration
Until this law, if an abuser strangled another person, the prosecutor could only charge them with attempted murder — or simple assault and battery. Attempted murder, which carries a much heavier penalty, requires proof of a specific intent to kill — a difficult threshold to meet in many domestic violence cases where offenders intend to torture and control, but not actually kill.
“The strangulation piece was so overdue,” said Greenfield Deputy Police Chief Mark Williams. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 20 years. The fact that I could in many incidents only charge someone with assault and battery … that to me was appalling.
“It’s such a high-level indicator of abuse and lethality,” Williams added. “I don’t know how many reports I took where strangulation was involved. It was enough.”
“Strangulation in my mind is attempted murder but you can’t prove it,” said Greenfield Sgt. David Rice. “I had a case where the husband had his wife 6 inches off the ground. We charged him with attempted murder, but he didn’t get it.
“This gives us new tools. This is definitely an improvement.”
In recent years, the District Attorney’s Office has noticed an increase in the number of strangulation cases.
Between 2009 and 2011, there were 176 reports of strangulation within Franklin, Hampshire and the North Quabbin region, according to the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. But that only includes reported cases.
“We know there’s more,” said Mary Kociela, of the DA’s domestic violence unit.
Strangulation can have a devastating psychological impact — and lead to death.
According to the Strangulation Institute, victims may lose consciousness through the blocking of the carotid arteries in the neck, depriving the brain of oxygen, closing off the jugular veins and closing off the airway, making breathing impossible.
After four to five minutes of sustained strangulation, death will occur.
Many times, victims do not suffer visible injuries and do not seek medical attention. And later their esophagus swells and they suffocate.
To help prevent strangulation and potential subsequent homicide, Kociela and Jennifer Handel Suhl, also of the DA’s Domestic Violence Task Force, went to San Diego this summer to train on aspects of nonfatal strangulation at the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
Kociela and Handel Suhl were trained to identify the signs and symptoms of near-fatal strangulation; understand and recognize the anatomy and medical aspects of surviving and non-surviving victims; investigate and document cases for prosecution; prosecute cases, and enhance victim safety through trauma-informed advocacy services.
Back in Franklin County, the Domestic Violence Task Force trained police to ask certain questions to identify whether strangulation had occurred. Police were also provided with a strangulation checklist in police reports to help identify telltale signs, such as a raspy voice, dizziness or difficulty swallowing
“We wanted them to ask every victim if they’ve ever been strangled. Sometimes, there are no signs that a strangulation occurred,” Kociela said.
Such information gathered at the scene of suspected abuse cases improve the prosecutors’ chance of getting convictions with the latest tool against domestic violence, the state’s new strangulation law.