By the time the late-night argument ended, Jacqi Galles had been hoisted off the ground in a tight stranglehold and choked so vigorously that she says she nearly passed out. She fled her home and called the police on her then-boyfriend, who was charged with a misdemeanor and spared a prison sentence after pleading guilty.
Moved by that case and others like it, South Dakota this year joined a growing list of states that have made non-fatal choking a felony crime, which is more serious and can carry stiffer penalties. Anti-domestic violence groups behind the effort say the laws are intended not only to secure tough prison sentences for domestic abusers but also to promote awareness of a crime they say often precedes homicide — yet is chronically under-prosecuted.
"For decades, we've simply lumped it into assault or battery or causing injury to another," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. "But there's a heightened awareness that this is something different. This is far more serious."
Attempted strangulation cases have long vexed police and prosecutors seeking stiff penalties for attacks. The act can leave victims close to death, but unlike blows that produce a black eye or broken nose, it often leaves few, if any, external signs of injury needed to prove a felony assault charge. An attempted murder charge is also hard to sustain in cases where suspects intend to frighten rather than kill their victim. As a result, advocates say, suffocation cases have historically been handled as misdemeanors that don't reflect the act's severity or carry meaningful punishment.
About 30 states have passed laws, most in the past decade, making it a felony under certain conditions to knowingly impede someone's breathing. Iowa, South Dakota, California and Tennessee are among recent states to act, and Virginia's governor signed a law just last week. A New York law that took effect in 2010 added three classifications, from a misdemeanor requiring no proof of physical injury to a Class "C'' felony, and yielded more than 11,000 charges in its first 14 months, according to the office on Domestic Violence Prevention.
The laws, part of a multi-pronged effort to draw attention to strangulation attempts, come as advocates train police on identifying the more nuanced signs — including a raspy voice, blood-red eyes from burst capillaries, difficulty breathing and involuntary urination.
Leading the campaign is the National Family Justice Center Alliance, a San Diego anti-domestic violence group that has received a $400,000 U.S. Justice Department grant to fund a strangulation training institute. The group's executive director, Gael Strack, has traveled the country helping lawmakers draft bills, identifying witnesses for legislative hearings and leading seminars for police. A former prosecutor, she said she was inspired by the mid-1990s murders of two teenage domestic violence victims, including one who was strangled and whose body was set on fire.
"We all go, 'Oh my gosh, she's in danger,' but when a victim is strangled and survives, no one seeks the blood or the bruising or the swelling," she said. "It's hard for them to understand that she's just like the victim who was stabbed or shot and survived."
Still, bills have stalled in some states as opponents, including defense lawyers, say that enough laws are in place to protect victims and that new measures will create excessive prosecution.
William Umansky, a former domestic violence prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer in Orlando, Fla., said he thought his state's law was flawed because it allows for felony prosecution without objective proof of a victim's injury. He said it gave prosecutors too much leverage to secure guilty pleas.
"Domestic violence is always bad, but the way I see it commonly prosecuted, there's no ligature marks on the woman's throat, no evidence of bruising. Just the verbal allegation, and all of a sudden, there's a felony charge," Umansky said.
Lawmakers in some states have been inspired by testimony from victims and their families.
New Hampshire passed its statute two years ago following the October 2009 murder of Melissa Charbonneau, who was fatally shot by her estranged husband a couple of days after he was released on bail after choking her. Jonathan Charbonneau killed himself after shooting his wife. The state's law treats attempted strangulation as a second-degree felony, carries a sentence of three and a half to seven years in prison and allows police to detain suspected abusers to keep violence from escalating.
"If we had the strangulation law at that time, I believe there would have been a cooling-down period, and a lot of this may not have happened," said Melissa Charbonneau's father, John Cantin.
Some laws don't require bodily injury — only that the attacker intended to cause harm or induce fear. That may ease prosecutors' burden, but advocates acknowledge that strengthening penalties alone won't make cases easier to prove. They say the laws need to be paired with extensive training so that police, prosecutors and medical professionals know what to look for.
The Family Justice Center Alliance offers free training, presentations aimed at police, court personnel and emergency responders are sponsored by hospitals and at some least police departments are spreading the message. In Rochester, N.H., for instance, a detective specializing in domestic violence trains all new officers on the topic.
A Justice Department official involved in anti-domestic violence efforts said heightened awareness is an important first step.
"When states get new laws about strangulation, it shines a light on it, shows the severity of the crime," said Bea Hanson, acting director of the department's Office on Violence Against Women, which awarded the grant for the California training center.
Galles, of Rapid City, S.D., said the confrontation with her then-boyfriend, a trained professional fighter, began after he returned home drunk and tried to touch her while she was in bed. At one point, she said, he clutched her by the throat and she nearly lost consciousness. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, domestic violence simple assault, he was sentenced to time already served in jail — 24 days — and released.
The experience moved Galles, 28, to advocate her state's law change, tearfully recounting her experiences to lawmakers. She said in an interview that she hopes the new laws will encourage more victims to come forward, knowing that their complaints will be taken seriously.
"The victim needs to be able to get away, and part of that is having the perpetrator be held accountable," she said. "The perpetrator needs to know that it's not OK and he's not going to keep getting away."
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