Stricter State Laws for Strangulation?

A price tag of $786K may stall a bill making strangulation a felony

Strangulation—in layman's terms, choking—is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence, and can bring a victim so close to death that later investigators can discern little difference between the damage done to women who survived such an attack and the bodies of victims who died from strangulation, says Amy Dilworth, director of the Knox County Family Justice Center.

Dilworth sees such victims constantly. "They come in and tell us, ‘He choked me until I passed out.'"

Even though such choking can cause injury in a matter of seconds and death in a matter of minutes, "attempting or intending to cause bodily injury by strangulation" is currently defined as a misdemeanor in Tennessee.

Dilworth is just one of many domestic violence victim advocates and administrators who would like to see that change. She strongly supports legislation introduced in early February by state Rep. Ryan Haynes in the House and Sen. Jamie Woodson in the Senate that would add strangulation to the definition of aggravated assault. Similar legislation introduced by Tim Burchett in the past has always stalled; Woodson says she was happy to pick up where he left off, particularly since Tennessee ranks fifth in the nation in violent murders of women by their domestic partners. "That is a shocking and sad statistic," she says.

Woodson also notes that the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence ranks strangulation as one of the top five risk factors in homicides related to domestic violence, and that a domestic-violence victim who has been strangled is nine times more likely to be killed than a victim who has not. In addition, a study of 300 murders in 11 cities published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that 43 percent of women murdered in domestic assaults and 45 percent of attempted-murder victims had been strangled in the previous year by their male partners.

It's also domestic terrorism of sorts, says Dilworth, who has worked in the family justice field since 1996. "That's what an abuser does with choking, he's wanting to say, ‘Your life is in my hands, and I can take it any time.'"

Victims may lose consciousness when the carotid arteries in the neck are blocked, depriving the brain of oxygen; when the jugular vein is blocked and prevents deoxygenated blood from exiting the brain; and/or when the airway is closed off and they can no longer breathe. Sometimes strangulation victims will revive and still die 48-72 hours later due to swelling or internal injuries, like a damaged windpipe.

So who could possibly object to reclassifying strangulation as aggravated assault? The fiscal responsibility of imprisoning those convicted exacts a high price, says Dilworth; according to the General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee, the estimated fiscal impact would be $786,700, the anticipated cost to the Department of Corrections for 10 convicted offenders.

"Even in this challenging budget cycle, I hope we can prioritize this," says Woodson. Her bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and action on the House bill has been deferred to the Judiciary Subcommittee for March 23. "If we're not able to pass it this year, we'll continue to work on passage," she says.

In any case, strangulation as a crime is receiving more attention locally, with the FJC hosting a training session last month for more than 70 police officers, prosecutors, and victim advocates on the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence cases involving strangulation. Two leading national experts—Gael Strack, CEO of the Family Justice Center Alliance and former San Diego assistant city attorney, and Dr. Dean Hawley, a forensic expert and director of autopsy services for the Indiana University School of Medicine—covered the topics of domestic violence injuries, strangulation investigation and documentation, and strangulation prosecution.