by Erin Beck, Staff Writer
Advocates for victims of domestic violence and police say tragedies could be prevented now that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed a bill to create a felony offense of strangling another person, despite vetoing a similar measure last year.

“We are really excited because we think this law will actually help save lives,” said Joyce Yedlosky, team coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “When someone strangles someone else, it’s an indicator they are seven times more likely to kill that person.”

Yedlosky was referring to a 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. Researchers asked close friends and family members of women who were killed by intimate partners about history of strangulation and found that it was associated with greater than seven-fold odds of becoming a victim of homicide.

In recent years, in West Virginia and across the country, advocates for victims of domestic violence have pushed lawmakers to take the potentially lethal crime seriously.

House Bill 4362, sponsored by Delegate Brian Kurcaba, R-Monongalia, created a felony offense of strangling another person — that is, knowingly and willfully restricting the person’s air intake or blood flow by the application of pressure on the neck or throat, without their consent and causing them bodily injury. Bodily injury is defined as substantial physical pain, illness or impairment of physical condition. The law makes the crime punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

In 2015, advocates for victims of domestic violence and law enforcement also advocated for the Legislature to pass a bill that would create a felony criminal offense of strangling another person, punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

While the bill unanimously passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate that year, Tomblin vetoed the legislation, saying strangulation was already covered in state code under malicious wounding, a felony; assault and battery, misdemeanors; and domestic assault and domestic battery, misdemeanors.

“Gov. Tomblin still believes the bill duplicates existing law,” said Shayna Varner, spokeswoman for Tomblin, “but based on the overwhelming support it received in the Legislature he opted to sign it this year.”

After the veto, advocates said they were disappointed because perpetrators weren’t being charged with malicious wounding when physical injury wasn’t present. Strangulation often leaves no visible injury. “Intent to maim, disfigure, disable or kill” must also be present to prove malicious wounding.

“Sometimes offenders will say ‘I wasn’t intending to kill them,’” Yedlosky said at the time. “’I was just trying to control them.’”

Advocates also weren’t satisfied with applying state code for domestic assault and battery or assault and battery, because they wanted such a lethal crime to be a felony, not a misdemeanor.

Strangulation can render a person unconscious within seconds and dead within minutes. But according to Cpl. Tony Craigo, an officer who specializes in domestic violence for the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, police have often been forced to charge abusers who strangle with domestic battery, a misdemeanor. First offense domestic battery is punishable by only up to a year in jail and a fine of not more than $500.

“I have seen cases like this come before our magistrates, and they know how dangerous this behavior is, and they sentence the maximum and in six to seven months the person is out,” Craigo said. “They were trying to do everything they could possibly do. The penalty was just not really addressing how lethal this was.”

Craigo said that abusers often will escalate the severity of violence from incident to incident in an effort to maintain control.

“When it gets to the point of someone strangling an intimate partner, it’s hard to one-up that other than homicide,” he said.

House Bill 4362, establishing a felony offense of strangulation, overwhelmingly passed the House of Delegates and unanimously passed the state Senate this year. Tomblin signed the bill on Wednesday.

Craigo was excited to learn the governor had signed the bill.

“That way we can address this highly dangerous behavior at a point where our victim is still alive,” he said.

At least 38 other states have passed laws addressing strangulation.

“We want to thank the Legislature for their overwhelming support, both last year and this year, and for understanding the need for this,” Yedlosky said. “We want to thank all of the law enforcement, prosecutors and everyone who helped provide for education to make this happen, and we want to thank the governor for signing it.”

To read the original article click here: New Strangulation Law in West Virginia