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7 Facts Every Judge and Attorney Should Know When Domestic Violence Involves Strangulation

Family Justice Center AllianceThe following is a guest blog post by Hon. Alan Pendleton, Tenth Judicial District Court Judge in Anoka, Minnesota and Gael B. Strack, JD, CEO and Co-Founder of the Family Justice Center Alliance in San Diego.

The arrests of Ravens running back Ray Rice and San Francisco 49er defensive tackle Ray McDonald have, once again, thrust the ugly specter of domestic violence into the forefront of American consciousness. One of the most terrorizing and lethal forms of violence used by men against their female intimate partners is strangulation. Strangulation is much more common and serious than professionals have realized. Judges and attorneys who deal with perpetrators and victims of domestic violence need to be well-versed in the facts about strangulation; the most effective weapon against domestic violence is education and training.

Here are seven medical-legal facts that judges and attorneys who deal with domestic violence cases need to know about strangulation:

  1. Strangulation defined. Strangulation is a form of asphyxia (lack of oxygen) characterized by closure of the blood vessels and/or air passages of the neck as a result of external pressure on the neck.
  2. There’s a widespread lack of understanding about strangulation. Many judicial officers and attorneys don’t understand the medical and psychological severity of the act of strangulation, because in many cases the lack of observable physical injuries to the victim cause judges to minimize its seriousness. To ensure that judges understand the seriousness of strangulation, some prosecutors have asked courts for permission to have an expert in the field of strangulation testify at bail hearings.
  3. Strangulation is one of the most terrorizing and lethal forms of violence used by men against their female intimate partners. The act of strangulation symbolizes an abuser’s power and control over the victim, most of whom are female. The sensation of suffocating can be terrifying; the victim is completely overwhelmed by the abuser. A single traumatic experience of strangulation or the threat of it may instill such intense fear that the victim can get trapped in a pattern of control by the abuser and made vulnerable to further abuse. Victims of one episode of strangulation are 7 times more likely to become a homicide victim at the hands of the same partner. Experts across the medical profession now agree that manual or ligature strangulation is “lethal force” and is one of the best predictors of a future homicide in domestic violence cases.
  4. The neck is the most vulnerable part of the body. Blood and oxygen all flow from the body to your brain through the neck, which is the most unprotected and vulnerable part of the body. More serious injuries occur from neck trauma than any other part of the body.
  5. It takes surprisingly little pressure to strangle someone. The brain needs a continuous supply of oxygen, without which, its cells quickly malfunction and die. Minimal pressure on the neck can prevent blood flow to the brain or prevent the return of blood flow from the brain to the heart. Without sufficient oxygen to the brain, unconsciousness occurs within 10 seconds, brain death within 4 minutes. It takes only 4 pounds of pressure to block the jugular veins, 11 pounds of pressure to block the carotid arteries, and 33 pounds of pressure to block the trachea (air flow). Compare this minimal pressure with opening a can of soda (20 pounds of pressure), an average handshake (80-100 pounds per pressure), or pulling the trigger of a handgun (6 pounds of pressure).
  6. Strangulation may leave little evidence on the skin. Lack of visible findings (or minimal injuries) doesn’t exclude a potentially life threatening condition; strangulation—even in fatal cases—often leaves no marks. A study by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office of 300 domestic violence cases involving strangulation revealed that up to 50% of victims had no visible injuries.
  7. Strangulation can cause substantial (and often delayed) injuries. Physical injuries short of death may include unconsciousness, fractured trachea/larynx, internal bleeding, artery damage, dizziness, nausea, sore throat, voice changes, throat and lung injuries, swelling of the neck, breathing and swallowing problems, ringing in the ears, vision change, and miscarriage. There can also be neurological injuries, such as facial or eyelid droop, left or right side weakness, loss of sensation, loss of memory, and paralysis. Psychological injuries may include PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation, memory problems, nightmares, anxiety, severe stress reaction, amnesia, and psychosis. Not all injuries are immediately apparent. There’s a possibility of delayed fatality (e.g., death can occur days or weeks after the attack due to carotid artery dissection and respiratory complications such as pneumonia, and the risk of blood clots traveling to the brain.

Historically, strangulation has been minimized by professionals due to the lack of visible injuries and the lack of medical training. Thirty-eight states, including California, have passed statutes in the last ten years to recognize this oversight, increase awareness, and enhance victim safety and offender accountability. The newly re-authorized Violence Against Women Act of 2013 added felony strangulation and suffocation to federal law. In March 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued sentencing guidelines and made a finding that “strangulation and suffocation, or an attempt of either, is specific serious conduct that deserves enhanced punishment regardless of injury.”

The Family Justice Center Alliance provides training on strangulation for all professionals, including judges and court staff. Training materials on strangulation are readily available at the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. Additional training material on domestic violence is at Judge Pendleton’s Judicial Training Blog.

By judges and attorneys educating themselves on this often misunderstood act, they will be better prepared to intervene appropriately. Effective intervention in non-homicide strangulation cases will increase victim safety, hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit, and prevent future homicides.

For an easy reference guide to domestic violence law in criminal cases, turn to CEB’s California Judges Benchbook: Domestic Violence Cases in Criminal Court, the book provided to criminal court judges presiding over domestic violence cases.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

11 replies on “7 Facts Every Judge and Attorney Should Know When Domestic Violence Involves Strangulation”

There may not be visible evidence of strangulation on top of the skin, I would not know, I’m not an expert but there will be plenty of evidence below the skin, such as bruising, crushed esophagus, i would think a visible lack of blood in the brain and arteries up from the point of pressure. A good ME would see petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes and other indicators of asphyxia before he or she conducted an autopsy. Which should always be done in the event of an unexplained death. I was denied the right to see my children without a shred of evidence, just my ex-wife sitting on the stand smiling and lying about a really nothing. I was never even accused of domestic violence. She said I used drugs, which is the number one false accusation used by people to keep children from the other parent out of hate. And no evidence has to exist, just the accusation. I have heard of A case here in Texas were the ex-husband accused the Mother of using drugs. Both parties were ordered to do drug testing and it was the accuser that was using drugs.
Family court Judges have too much leeway in the reach of their decisions without solid collaborating evidence of the accusers accusation. We use oversight committees for just about everything in our government but none for a family court judge! They don’t have a clue how you feel about your children, how much you love them, the great times you had with them. They are simply playing a guessing game a lot of the times with peoples lives.

Speaking from personal experience, there is not always obvious internal signs of strangulation, which is underscored by the author here in comparing the amount of pressure needed to strangle a person to other more common experiences. If the victim lives, he or she is likely to experience some physical effects from the event even where there is no clear internal or external evidence of injury. It is, indeed, a horribly traumatizing experience, for which victims should seek professional help. I urge others not to suffer in silence. Get assistance.

I was assault by a 26 yr old and I am 63 yrs. old. I was talking to him to try keep him from breaking my older sisters door. Her granddaughter who is his wife was there with one of their kids. He was wanting to pick it up early from a 2 hr visit which he allowed her to have. They were supposed to have joint custody. She told him no and he was trying to break the door. He slung me across the porch and busted the door framing. He then twisted my hand and turned it backwards and then choked me. He has been abusive toward my neice and has choked her and threaten her with gun. She is afraid of him. And he also threaten me that day also. And he had one in his vehicle. I am now pressing charges in our local court. I have developed head aches that I never had before and I am in therapy for a sprained cervical and twisted knee. I don’t know the outcome of this but judges do really need to look deeper into the domestic violence charges. I have never in my life been treated so bad.

My daughter was strangled by her boyfriend 3 times, the 3rd time she started losing conciousness she started fighting back. When the law enforcement showed up she was the one who got arrested. She was told because she didn’t have any visible marks & her boyfriend did so she must have been the aggressor.

Recently on Crime Watch Daily With Chris Hansen, which aired on 12/08/17 on FOX, the case of Molly Martens Corbett and her father, Tom Martens, was examined.
Molly’s father, Tom, a retired FBI agent and Molly claimed self defense in the death of her husband, Jason Corbett.
They both claimed that Jason was choking Molly and said” I’m going to kill her!”
Because Molly had no marks on her neck and even more importantly, she kept rubbing her throat during her interrogation and the prosecution said that made them suspicious. How the information included herein was never presented is beyond me. Now they’re both serving a 20-25 year sentence and they’re both innocent. Molly explained the paving stone that she used on Jason when he got the upper hand and was attacking her father. Bottom line, no one believed she was strangled because she had no marks.

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