By: Renatta Signorini
WESTMORELAND COUNTY, PA – One Youngwood man heads to court Tuesday on allegations he choked a woman on Valentine’s Day, while another is accused of knocking his girlfriend to the ground a week later and repeatedly stepping on her neck.
North Belle Vernon police this month arrested a third man after they said he grabbed his girlfriend by the throat while she clutched a young child.
They are believed to be the first three people in Westmoreland County — and among the first in Pennsylvania — charged under a new state law that makes intentional strangulation a felony, a move designed to hold domestic-violence perpetrators accountable for choking their victims.
“There are many cases of domestic violence that involve strangulation,” said John Peck, the county’s longtime district attorney.
The law went into effect in late December. It defines strangulation, in part, as when a person “knowingly or intentionally impedes the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person.”
Training sessions about the law change are being conducted for area police departments by county Detective Tom Horan and officials from the Blackburn Center, a Greensburg domestic and sexual violence advocacy organization and shelter. Another two sessions are planned next month.
“I suspect, give this six months, you’re going to see a lot more police charge this,” Horan said.
Officers in at least five other counties have made similar arrests, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. A victim can lose consciousness within five or 10 seconds of being choked. Four to five minutes of strangulation can result in death, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of the coalition.
“I think that criminalizing it … really shines a light on just how serious the crime is, how dangerous it is,” Kramer said.
Troopers in Greensburg and local police filed second-degree felony charges against:
• James Arthur Barnhart II, 36, of Youngwood for allegedly choking a female relative at his home Feb. 14.
• Richard Michael Uhrin Jr., 29, of North Belle Vernon for allegedly grabbing his girlfriend around the throat Feb. 18 as she held their 7-month-old son.
• Jonathan Mark Taylor, 43, of Youngwood for allegedly knocking his girlfriend to the floor at his home Feb. 20 and stepping on her neck three times.
Strangulation is considered a felony if the victim is a family or household member or is a care-dependent person; if the defendant is under a protection-from-abuse order; if it occurs during sexual violence; or if the defendant previously was convicted of the offense.
Pennsylvania joined 37 other states with similar laws.
New York adopted a strangulation law in 2010. Arrests for the offense exploded, with more than 17,000 people charged in the first 20 months, according to a report from the state’s Office of Justice Research & Performance.
Police made nearly 12,000 arrests statewide under the law in 2015, according to a report from the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
But the challenge has been follow-through in some situations, said Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“It’s tough for some victims to see the outcome on the other end,” she said. “There’s a lot more education that can be done about this.”
Before Pennsylvania’s law changed, police could charge a defendant accused of choking someone with simple or aggravated assault. But the act often doesn’t leave any injuries, making it problematic for prosecutors to prove, Peck said.
“Many times, a sentence is imposed that doesn’t necessarily speak to the amount of violence that occurred because there was no injury,” Peck said.
A first-time offender convicted of a first-degree felony faces a maximum of nine to 16 months in jail, and a second-degree felony carries a penalty of up to six to 14 months in jail.
That gives victims more protection under the law and could deter abusers from committing that type of act, said Karen Evans, advocacy program manager at the Blackburn Center.
“We are so happy for victims that this law passed and the police are working now on enforcing it,” she said.
Strangulation was the cause of 32 domestic violence-related deaths in Pennsylvania between 2012 and last year, according to the coalition. When police evaluate abusive situations and determine that the victim is at a high risk of danger, about half of statewide victims — 1,250 people — in 2016 said the perpetrator choked them, Kramer said.
In many cases, an abuser doesn’t intend to kill the person, she said.
“They strangle them to let them know that they’re able to,” she said.
Coalition officials are pleased that police in counties across the state began enforcing the new law “almost immediately,” Kramer said.
“We’re watching those (cases) anxiously,” she said.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.