Even in straitened budgetary times and with a fiscal note projecting increased state expenditures of $786,700 for incarceration of those found guilty, Tennessee legislators unanimously passed a bill May 21 increasing the penalty for strangulation in Tennessee. Formerly a misdemeanor, beginning July 1, attempting or intending to cause bodily injury by strangulation is now part of the state's definition of aggravated assault.
The bill's passage has been lauded by every domestic violence prevention and response entity in the state, both as a legal weapon to prosecute abusers and as a tool to educate domestic violence victims about the life-threatening nature of strangulation, typically deemed "choking" by its victims.
"Once you get to the point where you're putting your hands on someone's throat, you can have only two reasons: to control them or to kill them," says Russ Jensen, co-chair of the Community Coalition on Family Violence. "Hands can be as deadly as any other weapon when placed around someone's airway."
Because most strangulation injuries are not visible, untrained law enforcement, medical, and mental health professionals may underestimate the effects, and even the victims themselves don't realize how badly they've been hurt, says Family Justice Center director Amy Dillworth. Recent studies indicate that loss of consciousness can occur within 5-10 seconds and death within 4-5 minutes. Additionally, victims who don't seek help—and many that do—may die from untreated injuries several days later. Other studies indicate that the prevalence of strangulation is staggering, including 34 percent among abused pregnant women and 47 percent of all female domestic violence victims.
The first impetus for creating such legislation came out of Knox County six years ago, says Jensen, with the findings of the Knox County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, which included, among others, 4th Circuit Court Judge Bill Swann, and representatives from the district attorney general's office and local hospitals.
At the time, Jensen was representing Rural Metro. "We looked at the fatalities systematically, trying to determine, ‘Did we drop the ball somewhere along the line?'" he recalls. "One thing we saw was the prevalence of strangulation somewhere before a fatality or as the cause of death."
In the six years since, several bills have been introduced, notably by then-Senator, now County Mayor Tim Burchett, who was also instrumental in helping this year's bill pass. "It really made it easier for me as the new sponsor to be able to invoke his name, particularly in the Finance Committee," says senate sponsor Jamie Woodson (the bill was sponsored by Ryan Hayes in the House).
And the support was heartfelt and all-inclusive, says Woodson. While the bill is not the only one to pass unanimously in the cantankerous 2011 Session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly (see cover story, "Class of Clowns"), "it's probably the only one receiving unilateral support throughout the legislative process and it passed without a single amendment," she says. Woodson gives part credit to Jensen and the CCFV for their advocacy throughout the bill's trek through House and Senate these past eight weeks.
Jensen says he and forensics nurses Sally Helton and Ginger Evans, from the University of Tennessee School of Nursing, made that "long lonesome drive" to Nashville several times to speak to sponsors and representatives about the significance of strangulation. They also created a tight summation of statistics and statutes in the bill's favor, including the key finding that seemed to capture support from anyone who heard it: Almost half of all domestic violence homicide victims had experienced at least one episode of attempted strangulation prior to a lethal or near-lethal violent incident, and victims of prior attempted strangulation are seven times more like to become homicide victims.
The passage of a bill taking six years is frustrating, says Jensen, particularly as 29 states have passed similar legislation in the past decade. But the wait did create one advantage, he says. "We now have one of the most strongly worded and most encompassing strangulation laws in the country."