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Published On: Fri, Jul 3rd, 2020

Proposed Laws Recognize Strangulation as a Sign of Abuse to Come

Warning: some details in this article might be disturbing or triggering.

Only four jurisdictions in the United States — South Carolina, Ohio, Maryland, and the District of Columbia — do not explicitly consider attempted strangulation as a felony. However, Maryland and D.C. could soon disappear from that list.

D.C.’s mayor, and lawmakers in Maryland, have proposed laws to rectify what they see as a grave oversight. Currently, no matter how violently an attacker may block their victim’s airway, the assault can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor if the victim does not die, carrying much lighter penalties.

Strangulation is a common tactic for abusers because there are ways they can do it that leave no visible marks on the body. It reminds their targets that the abuser could kill them if they wanted to. Felony prosecutions for strangling are a way to take that power away.

postpartum depressed woman

photo by By tiagozr

The rise of laws addressing non-fatal strangulation correlates with an increase in scientific research into its medical effects. Even if it doesn’t lead to death, strangulation can cause internal injuries, and is a risk factor for seizures, miscarriages, and permanent voice damage, among other things.

While a horrific act of violence in its own right, strangulation is also a known red flag for escalated acts of violence. Research indicates that people who are strangled by their intimate partners are about eight and a half times more likely to be murdered by that same partner. Furthermore, domestic abusers are more likely to commit terrorist acts and spree killings.

“The D.C. and Maryland bills would consider strangulation a standalone felony, which can be added to another charge such as domestic violence or unlawful imprisonment,” Criminal Defense Attorney Shawn Sukumar explains. 

This decision puts a spotlight on the different ways that states have chosen to impose harsher penalties on stranglers. While 46 states have statutes criminalizing strangulation by name, only 23 of them describe it as a felony in itself.

The other states prosecute strangulation as a felony, but do so by categorizing it as assault or domestic violence. States also take different approaches to the severity of strangulation, treating it more harshly if it occurs during rape, causes visible or severe injuries, is done to the neck or another part of the body, or is committed against a family member or minor.

Advocates for domestic violence victims see the late 1990s and early 2000s as a turning point in legislative approaches to strangulation. Before then, some attributed the lack of laws addressing strangling to the lack of visible harm caused. Many lawmakers believed strangulation could be dealt with under existing domestic violence laws.

Onlookers credit events like the Monica Weber-Jeter case with turning the tide of political opinion. Weber-Jeter was strangled non-fatally by her husband in 2014. At the time, her home state of Ohio did not treat strangulation as a standalone felony, so her husband was convicted on domestic violence charges and sentenced to 11 days in jail. After being released, Weber-Jeter’s husband murdered her.

Ohio responded by passing “Monica’s Law,” one of the most recent additions to the nationwide body of laws, treating strangulation as a standalone felony. Supporters of Monica’s Law argue that if Weber-Jeter’s husband had received a longer prison term, she might have been able to leave their house with her two children. Ohio legislators saw the case as an example of how treating strangulation as a red flag can save lives.

Despite the nationwide trend toward stricter strangulation laws, some people argue they might go too far. Opponents point to the fact that strangling can be a consensual sexual activity, and fear that if penalties are made too harsh, innocent victims of domestic abuse accusations could see their lives ruined by felony charges and prison terms.

As the law recognizes more and more forms of abuse that do not leave marks, it is becoming increasingly clear that documentation is a critical weapon against abusers. Police officers in the modern age are more disposed to believe victims, but it is still possible for a lack of visible evidence to hurt someone’s chances of getting their abuser out of their life. Hopefully, laws like those on the docket in Maryland and D.C. will protect people by broadening the definition of abuse.

Author: Sadaf Zain

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