Torres: Sheriff's Office Takes Aim at Strangulation
From Florida Today
By John A Torres
The verbal abuse was there pretty much from the start.
And then, after seven years of marriage it had started to manifest physically. One day, she found herself pushed up against the bathroom wall with her husband’s hand gripped tightly around her neck, gasping for air.
“I struggled and tried to get him to stop but he didn’t, not until he wanted to,” said the recently divorced mother, who asked that FLORIDA TODAY not identify her to protect her from her ex-husband. “A little tighter and I would have been a goner.”
She went to the police, hoping they would warn him. And like many women in similar circumstances became even more fearful when she was told by police that they were going to arrest him.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have caused my husband to get in trouble with the law.’ ”
He was charged with a crime that Florida put on the books in 2007: domestic battery by strangulation, a third-degree felony. Unfortunately, unless there is a dead body or clear physical evidence that a victim has been choked, it’s one of those crimes that’s not easy to prove.
With no visible injuries, the woman in this incident, knowing it would be a case of “he said, she said,” told prosecutors she was not pressing charges but that they could. The state wound up dropping the charges as well.
It’s cases like hers that have prompted the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office to partner with the University of Central Florida, the State Attorney’s Office, the Department of Health and several domestic violence organizations and shelters on a pilot program focusing on evidence-gathering, training and education when it comes to possible strangulation cases.
“It’s very difficult to gather evidence and difficult to prove,” said sheriff’s agent Cyndi Young, who spearheaded the program with partner Agent Jessie Holton. “It’s under-investigated and under-reported and hard to prosecute. We don’t know what to look for.”
While some of the signs or symptoms are obvious: red marks, bruising, raspy voice or difficulty speaking, others are more subtle. They might include difficulty swallowing, dizziness, gaps in memory, facial droop, ear ringing, and bladder changes among others.
Also, according to Linda Barnett, Domestic Violence Division chief with the State Attorney’s Office, physical signs will sometimes show up days after the attack and by then the victims may not report the symptoms.
A major part of the program, modeled after a similar one started in Arizona’s Maricopa County, involves training investigators on evidence-gathering, what to look for, what questions to ask as well as involving nurses from the Health Department trained in treating this particular injury and identifying signs of strangulation.
Locally, Young said they were still collecting data and hard statistics were not available, but anecdotally agents know strangulation is happening more than it is being charged and prosecuted.
They look at Maricopa County — which sent a team to train Brevard’s unit — as an example of the program’s need. For the six-month period before instituting its own program, Maricopa was prosecuting only 14 percent of its strangulation cases. That number rose to 61 percent only three months after the pilot program was initiated and is 71 percent today.
And here’s the thing: Abusers use strangulation as a method of control and the effects are cumulative. They can result in stroke, brain damage, memory loss, not to mention suicide and, of course, murder.
There were two domestic violence strangulation deaths in Brevard County since about the time Young and Holton started putting their team together last year. David Brevick was recently sentenced to life in prison for strangling to death his wife Francia Vargas-Brevick. John Dwyer is in the Brevard County Jail awaiting trial in the death of his girlfriend Joan Meta Justis.
Young said she hopes the 18-month pilot program can get started by June. They are waiting on a small start-up fund to come through. And that’s one of the reasons UCF was brought aboard — to collect data, do research, provide benchmarks and find grant money to pay for the nurses, equipment and training.
“We’ll be able to provide good quality data,” said Adam Pritchard, assistant professor with UCF’s Department of Sociology. “Strangulation has really only been studied as a mode of homicide so we have a lot of research on how people have been killed in strangulation but what we are lacking in academic literature is research on strangulation victims who survived. The common lay person’s perspective is that if you don’t pass out or die, its not a big deal and that’s not true. We know it’s really dangerous but nobody has really measured how much it is happening.”
For Holton, the project will be a success if one life is saved. But he’s also practical and knows that to continue past the 18 months, they will need to provide solid numbers in order to find sources of funding.
“Some of the issues in law enforcement are that we can never really know what we prevent,” he said. “So here, when you do a cost analysis, if we are able to obtain significant evidence through this forensic exam to convince a defendant to plea instead of going to trial, that saves the taxpayers a ton of money. It costs the judicial circuit about $25,000 to do a trial.”
Two defendants pleading guilty and the program will have paid for itself for an entire year. Numbers like that would ensure funding and the program’s sustainability. The end result? Less work for the coroner.
“We’re going to hold the offenders accountable,” Young said. “In the end, that will save lives and that’s what it’s all about, preventing them from doing it to someone else.”
There aren’t enough pilot programs in the world to end domestic violence, that’s a given. But anything that might eventually prevent someone from getting murdered deserves a shot.