By: Karen Florin
NEW LONDON, CT – Attorney Gael Strack told a roomful of legal and law enforcement types at Connecticut College Friday that she dreams of having a wig head holder in every police cruiser in the country.
The mannequins are useful tools when asking victims of domestic violence to demonstrate how their attackers applied pressure to the neck.
Strack, a former San Diego prosecutor who now heads up the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, wants people who work with victims to recognize the signs and symptoms of strangulation and conduct investigations that will hold up in court.
“By writing a great report, you can change the outcome,” she told the group.
Connecticut enacted a law in 2007 defining strangulation as a felony or misdemeanor crime, depending on the severity of the attack, but New London prosecutor Sarah E. Steere said the number of strangulation cases brought into to court is low, in part because police and others lack training in strangulation.
“One third of the criminal cases in Connecticut in 2015 were domestic violence cases,” Steere said. “We’re working to establish a task force to get standardized protocols for domestic violence response.”
Friday’s event, for which police officers could receive continuing education credits for certification, was presented by Safe Futures, the New London-based domestic violence organization.
Katherine Verano, director of client services, said there was so much interest in the program she had to close the registration.
About 250 people attended the training, including police, prosecutors, public defenders, victim advocates, family violence counselors and medical professionals.
Verano said victims of domestic violence usually say their attacker “choked” them, but members of the legal and law enforcement community know the proper term is “strangulation” when someone uses his or her hands to apply pressure to the neck.
Still, a lethality assessment tool used by Connecticut police to determine whether a victim’s life in danger still uses the word “choke,” she said.
“You’ve got to talk the victim’s language,” Verano said.
William Smock, M.D., a professor and emergency medicine practitioner at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, described the anatomy and delicacy of the neck, which contains life-giving blood vessels and air passages.
“In military training, they say if you want to disable your opponent, go for the neck,” Smock said.
He said that people tend to fight and scratch to stay alive until they reach the point where they are resigned to dying.
Signs of strangulation are not always obvious, and victims sometimes are unable or unwilling to describe them.
Red marks around the neck sometimes appear, but sometimes the only signs of strangulation are tiny red spots, called petechiae, in the facial area and pupils caused by tiny capillaries bursting.
Victims of nonfatal strangulation sometimes will lose consciousness, be unable to speak or swallow, have seizures, hallucinations, difficulty breathing or lose control of their bladder or bowels.
Signs that a person has suffered trauma include inability to speak, crying, numbness, nightmares, flashbacks, stress and shame.
Investigators have a number of new tools to help document cases, including an iPhone application that victims can use to record their memories, according to Strack.
Smock suggested that asking the patient to look in the mirror and tell the investigator whether her face and neck looks the same as it did before the incident is helpful.
Strack said investigators should look for other injuries that might be related to domestic violence and strangulation, including concussion, hair pulling, ear pulling, breast punching and poking injuries.
Defendants in strangulation cases often deny the crime, claim self-defense, say the victim inflicted the injury on herself or that she “set him up,” Strack said.