Op-Ed

‘Horrific act.’ Why Kentucky needs to make non-fatal strangulation a felony.

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Forty-seven states have legislation specifically addressing non-fatal strangulation. Kentucky is not one of them.

It’s time we acknowledge extensive evidence-based research and recognize this serious crime by passing legislation making strangulation a felony.

There has been increasing awareness among advocates, medical professionals, and law enforcement of the seriousness of strangulation and the frequency with which domestic and sexual violence perpetrators strangle victims. According to the US Department of Justice, 68% of victims report being strangled at least one or more times.

Research also consistently finds incidents of non-fatal strangulation greatly increase the risk of harm or death in an intimate relationship by 700% or more. Each time a victim is strangled, the percentage of risk increases.

Many people incorrectly refer to this crime as “choking” or say the perpetrator grabbed the victim’s neck. This language minimizes the severity and lethality of such an assault. Choking is a term for an internal blockage of the airway, such as when a piece of food gets stuck in the windpipe. Strangulation occurs when someone chooses to cut off a victim’s oxygen and blood flow.

When the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen to maintain functioning, loss of consciousness occurs within seconds and death can occur within minutes. Strangulation is a powerful method of coercion and control; it’s an expression of the perpetrator’s willingness to take a victim’s life.

This horrific act is extremely painful and frightening. Experts compare the sensation to waterboarding; in other words, strangulation is tantamount to torture. Strangulation causes immediate symptoms, such as raspy voice, chest pain, and loss of consciousness. In non-fatal strangulation other symptoms, such as bleeding, bruising, brain injuries, and even stroke, can occur hours or days later.

Yet, because it takes very little pressure to restrict airflow, much less than it takes to open a can of soda, the victim may have been near death but show no visible signs. Even in fatal strangulation cases, there is often no evident external injury. Without obvious visible injury, this terrorizing act of brutality doesn’t neatly fit elements of other crimes.

Juries and judges have difficulty understanding the serious nature of the crime without clear guidance from expert witnesses, professionals with specialized training, and clear guidance in the law. Strangulation is already prosecuted in Kentucky under misdemeanor assaults or wanton endangerment. These charges do not account for the lack of physical evidence and certainly do not reflect the gravity and potentially deadly nature of this offense.

Making strangulation a felony won’t create a new crime. It will, however, provide clear elements of an offense for existing lethal force being used consistently by violent and abusive intimate partners.

Kentucky is home to some of the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual violence, and intimate partner stalking in the country. We rank 9th in the nation for rates of women murdered by men, and all too often that man is an intimate partner. Passing felony strangulation legislation will provide maximum protection for victims of domestic and sexual violence. It also holds offenders to greater levels of accountability for these terrorizing and brutal acts.

The level of violence and potential for serious bodily injury or death in strangulation warrants felony arrest and prosecution. Passing felony strangulation legislation this session sends a message that Kentucky takes this crime as seriously as the rest of the nation and will no longer tolerate this behavior.

Stephanie Theakston is Lexington Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition Coordinator. If you are in a relationship with a violent partner, help is available from people in your community who believe you and want to support you. Many of these services are available free of charge. Speak with a domestic violence advocate in your community or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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