By: Daniella Rivera
Opening a can of soda, firing a gun, and a firm handshake — these are all things that can generally require more force than it takes to injure someone during strangulation, according to Anchorage’s new district attorney.
In a training this week, John Novak worked alongside medical and law enforcement professionals to educate others on how to investigate, document, prosecute, and prove cases of strangulation.
Now at the helm of Alaska’s largest District Attorney’s Office, Novak is placing cases involving strangulation among his top priorities.
“I feel very strongly about that,” he said during a previous interview. “If you’re willing to put pressure and strangle somebody, the studies show that that is a high indicator of somebody – if you’re willing to do that, you’re willing to kill them.”
This week’s two-day strangulation training in Anchorage is one of many Novak has participated in over the last half decade. He says the crime, while serious and deadly, is often a challenge to present to juries.
During mock testimony with a trooper, Novak questioned him on the amount of force necessary to strangle someone, compared to what it takes to complete mundane tasks.
Stopping the flow of blood from the brain down to the rest of the body requires three to 10 pounds of pressure. Opening a can of soda takes 20. A firm handshake is in the neighborhood of eight pounds. Depending on the type of gun, it can take between three and 10 pounds of pressure to pull the trigger.
Stopping the flow of blood from the heart up to the brain can take more force — five to 10 pounds — still half of the pressure needed to open a fizzy beverage.
“The reality is that only about half of cases of strangulation are going to have any sort of physical findings at all, and that’s even true for fatal cases of strangulation. You may not see any sort of external signs on the victim at all,” explained Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, a physician assisting with the training.
Having the knowledge and tools to catch perpetrators early can mean the difference between life and death for victims, according to Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Mike Henry, who supervises the trooper post in Dillingham.
“We’ve learned in the medical and law enforcement realms that there is a very high lethality for strangulation assaults. We have people dying, unfortunately, from strangulation,” Henry explained.
The sergeant added, “There’s some research that shows that a victim, once strangled, is seven times more likely to become a victim of homicide, and so that’s a reason why we want to pay special attention to this.”
Henry said the effort to increase awareness about the seriousness and potential deadly nature of strangulation is on par with a similar national movement to educate those who will come in contact with victims and perpetrators of strangulation.
In Alaska, the issue has recently received increased public awareness following the highly publicized no-jail time plea deal for Justin Schneider, a man accused, in part, of strangling a woman unconscious.
Currently, proposed Senate Bill 12 would require that strangulation to the point of unconsciousness is defined as first-degree assault, which carries an increased sentence of five to 20 years.
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