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January 19, 2013

Law awakens to choking dangers

When I was district attorney, we noticed many cases of domestic violence where the facts included that one partner, almost always the man, choked the woman with his bare hands. 

In the cases we saw, the victim did not die, had no visible injuries and seemed to promptly recover once his hands were removed. 

Thus, this conduct usually did not result in a criminal charge.

But many times the woman reported that while being choked she couldn’t breathe, lost consciousness, her vision got blurry or she saw “stars.” In followup interviews afterwards, some victims had headaches, ringing in their ears, sore throats, difficulty swallowing or speaking, hoarseness or even had voice changes or memory loss.

We began to pay attention to the frequency of this type of attack in the late 1990s, after seeing that it was often part of the Domestic Incident Reports of what victims told the police. In late 2010, New York law added the crime of strangulation, but back then, this crime did not exist. 

If there was a charge, it had to be under the regular assault statute, which, in New York, requires actually causing physical injury.

OFTEN NO MARKS

In exploring how to best handle these cases, we learned about prosecutors in San Diego who consulted with emergency-room doctors. They learned how dangerous it is when hands lock around a person’s neck, that this cuts off the blood supply to and from the brain. 

Often, no outward marks are left.

In 1999, we brought a prosecutor and a physician from San Diego here — they trained more than 150 local professionals, including 911 operators, first responders, law enforcement officers, emergency physicians and nurses, prosecutors and victim advocates. They taught us about the dangers of strangulation and how to identify and prosecute it.

EMOTIONAL HARM

I’d always thought that choking someone was about cutting off the air supply, the ability to breathe. It certainly can be but, more importantly, the pressure of hands around someone’s neck closes the arteries carrying blood and oxygen to the brain and also shuts down the veins that return blood from the brain. 

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