SALT LAKE COUNTY (News4Utah) – More than a year after Utah lawmakers passed a bill to make strangulation a felony, what kind of effect has the new law had on the fight to protect victims of domestic violence?
According to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, victims experiencing strangulation in abusive relationships are 10.9 times more likely to get killed than other victims of domestic violence.
Jennifer Gardiner, mother of three, almost came close to losing her life in 2006. She met her then-husband eight years prior, who started physically abusing her over the course of their relationship.
“When he was angry, he was physically violent. Outside of being angry, he was a provider, he was a dad. We went on trips, we went on cruises, we took the kids to the zoo. We did normal family things. We looked like that normal family,” said Gardiner.
She said she stayed with him for so long because she thought he had changed for the better.
“The abuse happened so infrequently that in between those phases, six, eight months, a year…I would tell myself, ‘He fixed what he needed to fix and he’s no longer like that.’ But then another incident would happen, and each time another incident happened, it would get worse,” said Gardiner.
During a night out, he beat her in the car during a furious, intoxicated rage and strangled her for the first time.
“All of his weight, all of his pressure was on me and I’m thinking in that moment…’This is it. This is where my life ends,'” said Gardiner. “But then, in that moment, I was thinking, ‘There has to be a different ending for me.'”
Strangers who heard her screams for help came to her rescue. Gardiner suffered broken bones and lacerations in her face, but most severely, nerve from the strangulation that will last a lifetime.
“As the years went by – my arms, I get numbness. I get pains right along the side of my ribs. I have horrible migraines and part of is probably because I have plates in my face. But I can tell when it’s in the left side of my neck, because that’s where the damage is,” said Gardiner.
Her ex-husband served time in prison for two charges of aggravated assault that were not related to the strangulation.
“If he had not done any other damage to me, he would have served maybe 60 to 90 days in jail when it was all said and done,” said Gardiner.
Since her recovery, Gardiner testified on capitol hill to get House Bill 17 passed in the 2017 legislative session. She urged lawmakers to close, what advocates say, is a loophole in Utah’s criminal code and should be treated as attempted murder. Before then, strangulation was only charged as a Class B misdemeanor.
“It’s imperative for people to understand that the strangulation caused more damage and more problems in my life and in my future than the broken bones. The broken bones are healed but the strangulation has caused permanent damage,” said Gardiner.
According to Kristin Hall, forensic nursing coordinator for the Family Justice Center S.A.N.E., it only takes 10 pounds of weight to cut off 80 percent of blood supply to the brain.
“We don’t really have a set time frame that it takes to kill somebody. No one really knows. It’s equivalent to a Russian Roulette game that you’re playing. You don’t really know when that time is going to be,” said Hall.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said before the new strangulation law, it was difficult to prosecute abusers for strangulation.
“It was too often thought that it was just part of the fight or the assault that was occurring. But it’s a very unique part of that assault. It is an assault within itself where it can have a life-ending impact on people, it can be fatal,” said Gill.
But since the passage, he said his office has 451 cases involving strangulation (78 have been dismissed because of lack of cooperation or lack of evidence, 178 have been resolved, with 200 more cases that are active).
“We are still young as within the context of our law enforcement and first responders to really question and really do a deep dive when we’re coming into contact with those victims. So my senses are we are going to have numbers that are far more higher than this,” said Gill.
Although Gill said he expects that number to go up, it won’t be because of more occurrences, but rather because of more training and awareness by first responders in handling strangulation cases.
“The success stories really are the ability for the first time, to take this behavior, which before had no accountability, to be able to give it an accountability and hold an offender accountable for that behavior,” said Gill.
But Gill said the state is still in its infant stages of developing a consistent
“Here’s the sad fact. We have more consistency in the investigation and prosecution of a DUI than we do gathering evidence for strangulation or sexual assaults,” said Gill.
Twelve years later, Gardiner continues to advocate for victims of domestic violence while working as an assignment editor at News4Utah.
“I don’t get to forget what happened to me. I have to live with it,” said Gardiner. “But I’m past the point where I’m not living in it. I understand that this happened to me, but it doesn’t define me.”
Utah is one of 45 states in the country that has legislation against strangulation.
Hall said the Family Justice Center currently provides forensic testing for victims of sexual assault, but they will launch a pilot program to provide forensic testing for other domestic violence victims as well, including strangulation.