Make Strangulation a Felony in KY

Written by Mary Byron Project Intern

February 25, 2016: Cedric Ford fatally shot three people and wounded fourteen in Newton and Hesston, Kansas.

June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen, brutally shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 outside a night club in Orlando, Florida. This is the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history.

November 5, 2017: Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and injuring 20 more. This was labeled the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the US and the deadliest shooting in a place of worship in the US.

Something these men have in common? They all had a history of domestic violence and had previously strangled a wife or girlfriend. Kelley was charged with a misdemeanor after strangling his wife and served one year in prison. Ford was also charged with a misdemeanor after strangling his girlfriend and was only required to attend anger management classes. Mateen had strangled both of his wives, but was never charged for either assault. Had these men been convicted of felony strangulation, is there a chance that one or all of these horrific shootings may not have even had the opportunity to occur?

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, strangulation is considered one of the most serious and deadly forms of abuse, but despite these claims not only is strangulation often over looked by law enforcement officers and courts, it is only considered a misdemeanor in several states. 45 states have taken action to ensure the safety of victims of intimate partner violence and address the severity of strangulation by labeling it a felony. Kentucky, unfortunately is not one of these states. I find it extremely discouraging that despite the overwhelming amount of studies that have established the risks associated with strangulation, Kentucky has failed to acknowledge the seriousness of this crime.  

Here is what we know…

Studies show that strangulation is a significant predictor of future lethal violence. Once a victim has been strangled by their abuser, their likelihood of being killed increases 10 times. The Strangulation Institute reports that 70% of strangulation survivors feared they were going to die during the incident. Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death in women between the ages of 18 and 40 and more than half of these homicides are perpetrated by either a current or former intimate partner. In a study entitled, Non-fatal Strangulation is an Important Risk Factor for Homicide of Women, it was found that women who were victims of IPV homicide were likely to have a history of strangulation. These are preventable deaths.

Strangulation is not something which occurs by accident. It is an intentional act perpetrated with an intent to seriously harm or kill a victim and it takes shockingly little force or time to inflict injury. The brain needs a continuous supply of oxygen in order to function. Without this oxygen supply, it takes only a mere ten seconds to render a person unconscious; four minutes without oxygen would leave an individual brain dead. According to Dr. Bill Smock, Police Surgeon of the Louisville Metro Police Department, it takes 4 pounds of pressure to block jugular veins, 11 pounds to block carotid arteries and 33 pounds to block the trachea or air flow. To put that into perspective, it only takes about 20 pounds of pressure to open a can of soda and the average hand shake is about 80-100 pounds of pressure.

Over half of all strangulation victims show no initial signs of physical injury such as bruising or blood shot eyes, however, the internal consequences can be deadly. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, it is possible for a victim to have no signs of physical injury, but die days or weeks later from brain damage or respiratory complications. This is why forensic exams are vital in documenting these incidents as they can account for internal evidence and injuries. Psychology Today states that survivors also suffer from devastating psychological effects such as “PTSD, depression, suicidal ideations, memory problems, anxiety, severe stress reaction, amnesia, and psychosis.” Strangulation is even listed in the Lethality Assessment as a warning sign for victims who are at risk of being killed.

Abuse comes in many forms and not all abuse is violent. Things such as stalking, financial control, or monitoring one’s phone can have traumatic effects on a victim and make them fearful of their partner. No type of abuse should ever be minimized. However, given the deadly nature of strangulation, I believe it is especially pertinent that our legal system takes action immediately.

Kentucky does not have any specific strangulation laws and so it is frequently charged as Assault 4, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 12 months jail time (if jail time is even given) and/or a fine of up to $500. Sometimes, charges are not even made due to lack of physical evidence. Not only does this communicate to abusers that their actions won’t have severe consequences, but it also tells victims that their lives aren’t worth protecting.

Other states have taken the initiative to label it as a felony. Our Hoosier neighbor up north is a prime example of how these laws can be changed.

I read a 2007 article, Strangulation Carries Felony Charge under New Law, which discussed Indiana’s strangulation law. This law allows responding officers to charge anyone suspected of strangulation with a Class D felony. The law was passed to address the gap between cases in which a victim did or did not receive life threatening injuries or if a deadly weapon was involved. Previously, in cases where no life threatening injuries were sustained and no deadly weapon was involved, offenders were only given up to a $1,000 court bond and were most likely charged with class A misdemeanor battery. If the victim suffered life-threatening injury or was attacked with a deadly weapon, then the attacker could be charged with Class C or B felony. Many domestic violence advocates saw this gap as a threat to women’s safety as often no serious injury is left behind from strangulation. With this new law, the attack doesn’t have to result in life threatening injury in order to be labeled a Class D felony. With this felony charge, victims are also given the opportunity to seek safety and assistance as no immediate bond is offered to the offender.

In Kentucky, strangulation can be charged as a felony, but only when it’s labeled under another charge such as wanton endangerment. The problem is that this charge is not used often. A frequent lack of evidence seems to lead our Criminal Justice System to treat strangulation as mere “choking” incidents. This has lead people to believe that creating a felony charge is a futile effort. A study entitled, How to Improve your Investigation and Prosecution of Strangulation Cases, states that many officers and prosecutors have “believed and accepted that without visible injuries, choking cases could not be prosecuted without a victim’s full cooperation or sufficient independent corroboration.” The study goes on to prove that this doesn’t have to be the case. With improved documentation, investigation and prosecution, these cases can be successful. A few suggestions included officers taking proper photographs and follow up photographs of injuries, requesting paramedics to be dispatched to the scene for screening, follow up with forensic investigators, and the use of expert testimony in trial. What I really took away from this study is that we can’t just rely on a new law to address strangulation crimes, we must also look to law enforcement officers, prosecutors, medical examiners and all others involved in these cases.

45 states have elevated strangulation to the felony level due to the risk of death and future lethal violence. According to a 2011 article from the National Training Institute “every state prosecutor’s association in the country that has studied the issue has concurred in the need for a statute and has supported such legislation.” At the time of that quote, 29 states had passed statutes, and clearly the numbers have only grown.

Although not all offenders will go on to perpetrate mass homicide, as the three mentioned at the beginning of the blog, research has proven that these offenders are more likely to murder their partners and commit future violent acts. These crimes can be prevented if we install the resources and legislation to do so.  Strangulation enables an abuser to have ultimate power and control over their victim. It allows them to control their breathing. It allows them to control whether they live or die. It is time that we stop minimizing this crime and call it what it is, attempted murder, and it should be treated with the same gravitas. If a felony strangulation law is passed, this will send a message to those handling these cases that strangulation is a serious crime and incentive may be given to develop policies or trainings around handling lethal cases of domestic violence. Kentucky needs to follow through on prioritizing the safety of victims of intimate partner violence and hold offenders accountable for their actions.