Today, the 3-year-old law has begun to gain traction. Before the law was passed, non-lethal strangulation cases typically were treated as misdemeanors, put in the same category as a punch or a slap, or not prosecuted at all. Last month, Harris County prosecutors filed 103 such cases, just shy of the 122 cases filed in all of 2009. A conviction of the third-degree felony is punishable by two to 10 years in prison.
“These were high-risk cases. Once you reach the point of putting your hands around somebody’s neck, it takes things to another level of violence,” said Jane Waters, chief of the district attorney’s Family Criminal Law Division.
Advocates say that enhanced penalties were crucial because strangling and suffocation, however brief, are red flags for the escalation of violence in an intimate relationship and are significantly more likely to have lethal consequences.
“Any law that would help punish perpetrators before you get to murder is a good thing,” said Rebecca White, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Chris Tritico, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, questioned whether strangling needs to be separated from other types of assault, noting the threshold for winning a conviction has not changed. This “specialty-type crime” raises the bar unnecessarily for offenders without defining how severe the strangling has to be to raise a misdemeanor assault to a felony offense, he said.
“The vast increase in filings is troublesome at best,” Tritico said. “It makes it easier to put someone in jail on an allegation that they can’t defend.”
Cases still need to be built and proven by prosecutors, which means educating law enforcement officials, as well as victims, on the law. For example, strangling incidents do not always leave a mark on the throat or neck. In addition to asking a domestic violence victim whether she was strangled, investigatorsneed to look for more subtle signs of injury, such as bloodshot eyes, a raspy voice or if a victim urinated on herself after losing consciousness, Waters said.
Fernando Morales, 28, recently was charged with the felony offense after prosecutors said an argument with his girlfriend escalated into a full-fledged fight in which he twice put his hands around her throat. The girlfriend was battered and bruised, but authorities were able to file the felony charge after the girlfriend told investigators how he stopped her breathing. Morales remains at large.
30 states have laws
The non-lethal strangulation issue gained prominence more than 10 years ago, when legislation began cropping up around the country. Now, more than 30 states have such laws on the books, said, Gael Strack, CEO and co-founder of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, who has led the effort.
Strack conducted a study in the 1990s that she said uncovered a link between strangulation and homicide. The study of 100 strangulation cases found most had been handled as if the victim had been slapped in the face.
“The study made us realize that it’s a lethal-type violence and the system was taking it for granted,” Strack said. “Without knowing, it was trivializing a serious type of violence.”
For most laws, she said, implementation takes between one to two years because law enforcement officials, prosecutors and the medical community need to learn how to screen for the cases, document, investigate and prosecute the new offense.
“We need to bring education and awareness to change the system to get the individuals accountable for the crime,” she said. “In the past, they were getting away with it. … Essentially, what you have is a killer, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Marie’s former boyfriend was recently released from prison on parole.
Marie did not want the Houston Chronicle to use her real name, fearing her former partner will find her and kill her.
She was with the man for several years, and says she never considered that strangulation could have put him away sooner.
“I felt there was no justice,” she said. “Now, I have hope.”