A pair of bills before the D.C. Council and Maryland’s General Assembly would make attempted strangulation a felony offense. If passed, they would bring both jurisdictions in line with almost every U.S. state in how they punish an offense many victim advocates say can be a precursor to homicide — especially for women.
Under current D.C. law, strangulation that does not end in death — choking someone — is considered simple assault, a misdemeanor. But under a bill proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, it would be listed as a standalone felony offense, and it could lead to additional prison time if it causes serious bodily injury or the perpetrator was on supervised release at the time.
In Maryland, strangulation can be charged as first-degree assault — defined as a crime that can cause serious physical injury — but is often prosecuted as a lesser second-degree assault, a misdemeanor. A bill introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would specifically define strangulation as a felony offense.
Along with South Carolina and Ohio, D.C. and Maryland are the only jurisdictions in the U.S. that do not treat attempted strangulation — defined as blocking the airway and arteries by force — as a stand-alone felony. (In 2013, it was also added as a felony during the re-authorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act.)
Victim advocates say there’s been an upswing of felony strangulation laws passed across the country over the last two decades, largely because of increasing awareness and research around people who strangle and what happens to their victims, most of whom are women.
“A strangler can take a woman to within seconds of death and leave no marks on her body, and that would be considered a misdemeanor. That realization was beginning to happen in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” says Casey Gwinn, president of the California-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, which has been tracking and advocating for more stringent strangulation laws since then.
“In the very early years, prosecutors and advocates and police officers were having a hard time addressing it within the existing aggravated assault statute because strangulation is a very different sort of a crime. You can strangle someone to death with no external injuries, which means you can also almost strangle them to death,” adds Gwinn, who also served as the elected city attorney for San Diego, Calif., from 1996 to 2004.
A growing body of research also has shown that people who are strangled by their partners are at higher risk of eventually being killed by them. In D.C., the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board found that between 2014 and 2018, there were 63 domestic violence homicides, split evenly between intimate-partner and non-intimate-partner killings. Most of those victims were stabbed or shot, 13% were strangled to death. Victim advocates say that even when strangulation itself isn’t used to kill someone, it’s often a sign the violence will escalate.
“Any time when we have a domestic violence case where there has been an incident of strangulation, that is a definite red flag that indicates that that victim has a much greater risk of being killed by that partner than a victim who hasn’t experienced strangulation,” says Michelle Garcia, director of the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants.
In a letter sent to Maryland lawmakers earlier this month, Gwinn said that if a woman is strangled once by her partner, “she is 750% more likely to later be killed by that same partner.”
Even if the strangulation isn’t fatal, significant internal damage can be done. That damage often is difficult to assess due to the lack of external injuries a police officer may be able to identify quickly. And because there may be no external marks, a victim might not even report the abuse, or they may assume they are fine. But cutting off oxygen to the brain, even temporarily, can cause brain damage and possibly life-threatening injuries.
“We know that if you’re strangled by your partner, you’re likely to be strangled again,” says Erin Pollitt, director of D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiners, the only group in the city that provides detailed medical exams for adult victims of violence. “And it can have very bad consequences. They might seem fine, but we’re teaching [victims] about these potentially lethal consequences so they can understand the grave danger of it.”
Similar felony strangulation measures across the country have run into some opposition from criminal-justice reform advocates who generally oppose increasing prison sentences. Lawmakers may also say that strangulation can be dealt with under existing assault laws. But victim advocates say that increasing penalties for strangulation can go hand in hand with other measures to prevent domestic violence, including education, jobs and training on healthy relationships.
“At the end of the day, all of those things need to be addressed in conjunction with [the fact] that this crime, strangling another person, is so high on the lethality scale that it is an act of potential homicide. I think that needs to be taken seriously, as seriously as all of those other preventative actions that need to be put in place as well,” says Dawn Dalton, deputy director for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Gwinn also says research more closely links men who strangle their partners to other crimes, including mass shootings and killing police officers. And he notes that a significant number of recent mass shooters — including D.C. sniper John Muhammad — were known domestic abusers.
“These guys are the most dangerous men on the planet,” he says.
Felony strangulation bills were introduced in Maryland in 2012 and D.C. in 2015, though they did not move forward at the time. The bill in Maryland will have a hearing later this month, while no hearing is yet scheduled in the D.C. Council.
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