- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - A new state law targeting domestic violence took effect in late December, and already a half-dozen people in Blair County are facing the charge that aims specifically at one type of abuse - strangulation.

While strangulation is a term most people connect with murder, nonfatal strangulation is a serious problem that people who deal with domestic abuse victims see all too often. If left unchecked, it can have deadly consequences.

“A lot of time people say they were choked,” said Cynthia Estep, counselor and prevention advocate with Family Services Inc. in Altoona. “They don’t realize strangulation is a huge tool for abusers.”

Estep pointed out that strangulation is dangerous, but many times is dismissed by victims because it didn’t involve hitting. She said strangulation can leave long-term physical and neurological effects, and its addition as a new statute will help victims and defendants alike understand how dangerous the hands can be in these situations.

Injuries from strangulation may not be visible because of a lapse of time between the alleged act and the reporting to police, but sometimes the effects are more than skin deep.

Estep pointed out that in strangulation cases, injuries don’t always show up immediately and suggested one way to ensure the safety of a suspected victim is to call in EMS personnel.

“Officers should always call EMS,” Estep said. “Because internal injuries, which can be fatal, may not be apparent to the victim. Because of underlying brain damage and lack of oxygen, victims have died several weeks later.”

Signs and symptoms of strangulation range from the neurological such as loss of memory, loss of consciousness, dizziness and vomiting to visibly physical symptoms such as petechiae (spots from broken blood vessels) to the eyelids and eyes, a droopy eyelid, redness, bruises and marks on the throat or swollen face or lips. Victims can experience difficulty breathing after the fact, along with ringing in the ears, bleeding from the ears, a raspy or hoarse throat and trouble swallowing, to name a few.

“Domestic violence is such an intense thing anyway, because emotions run so high,” Estep said. “There’s no reason to touch a person’s body - especially someone to whom you say, ‘I love you,’” in anger.

Estep said the most important aspect of the new law in domestic violence cases - especially where a protection-from-abuse order is in effect - is that the accused is charged with a felony.

“I think it’s an excellent statute,” said Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio, who said when prosecuting domestic violence cases in the past, it was difficult to show enough evidence to charge suspects with felony aggravated assault.

So far, police in Blair County have charged a half-dozen people with the new law, including two in the past week.

“Before, strangulation was more like a symptom of the larger issue of domestic violence,” Consiglio said, adding the law covers the impeding of breathing or circulation of blood, whether it’s pressure to the neck, the covering of a person’s mouth and nose by a hand or pillow and any other means of someone cutting off air to another.

Risk of future violence

Consiglio said strangulation is a strong predictor of future violence, particularly domestic violence homicides. Consiglio pointed to a 2004 report out of Minnesota where the Hannepin County Fatality Review Team studied the issue of domestic violence and found abuse by strangulation is the last step before murder. Minnesota lawmakers added a strangulation law that went into effect in 2005.

Pennsylvania’s law went into effect Dec. 26 and includes any pressure that keeps a person from breathing, except in consensual situations, and if a victim and offender are related, a household member or a caretaker, it’s a felony.

“Criminalizing strangulation has been a top priority of the PA Coalition Against Domestic Violence,” said Ellen Kramer, the organization’s deputy director.

Kramer said the new law is critical to addressing the problem of domestic violence since choking, what is also referred to as nonfatal strangulation, is involved in about 54 percent of the cases reported to police.

“It’s really startling how prevalent it is in domestic violence cases,” Kramer said.

Kramer said the law isn’t just about addressing a particular type, however prevalent it is, of abuse, but rather a tool in accomplishing broader goals related to domestic violence.

The new law strengthens the safety of the victims and the accountability of offenders, she said. On an even broader level, it makes communities safer, particularly the police who handle domestic violence cases.

Kramer said evidence shows that abuse involving nonfatal strangulation escalates into more violent, and sometimes fatal, situations.

“Hands are a very powerful weapon,” Kramer said, noting that in 2015, police in Pennsylvania identified 2,097 people at risk of death because of domestic violence. About 54 percent of those people said they had been strangled.

“It’s really startling,” Kramer said.

It’s the police who often have the first contact with victims, outside the family, and Kramer said with the new law, it was important to ensure officers had the training necessary to recognize the signs of strangulation.

Officers undergo training

There is an 11-question screening that police have to determine whether a person has been a victim. Because there are cases where accusations are made without any apparent physical signs - either due to the passing of time of because of the way a person was choked - officers are given questions and trained on what to look for physically to help determine whether a crime was committed.

“We will be watching these cases very closely to see what training is necessary,” Kramer said.

Defense attorneys in the area said they, too, will be watching these cases carefully because the law’s wording is likely, they say, to invite challenges in the courts.

Attorney Dan Kiss said since it is important to protect people against domestic violence, the best intentions of the law are overshadowed by its vagueness and a potential for abuse.

“I think it’s needlessly vague in the way it’s written, and it invites a constitutional challenge,” Kiss said.

Defense attorney Thomas Dickey agreed, saying while it’s a “feel good law,” there are some questions that won’t necessarily be answered until some cases wind their way through the courts.

Dickey pointed out that prior to the new law, domestic violence cases were charged either as a misdemeanor simple assault - the bulk of the cases - or for more serious injuries with abuse, a felony aggravated assault charge was applied.

The sentencing between the felony and the misdemeanor would be a big change, depending on a defendant’s prior criminal history. Instead of 22 to 36 months in jail, a defendant charged with felony strangulation could be facing 10 years in prison.

“I’m not downplaying domestic violence,” Dickey said, adding that it is a new law, so there will be a natural time period where it is tested. “Will it be voided by vagueness? I would anticipate there will be a lot of constitutional attacks on this statute as more people are charged with it.”

Kiss pointed out the law is unique because it makes a specific act of violence the crime itself and one where physical evidence of injury isn’t necessary, as opposed to the mechanism of another statute such as assault.

“No other physical crime in the crimes code is it unnecessary to prove some sort of injury,” Kiss said. “If no proof is required of any physical injury, how do you disprove it occurred?”

Kiss said cases where it comes down to one person’s word against another’s will be tricky to prosecute and defend. He also pointed out that strangulation could be as easily covered under the felony aggravated assault statute, since it covers assaults with intention or knowledge that an action could cause serious bodily injury.

Consiglio believes the strangulation statute will be easier to prove than aggravated assault, pointing out it’s the “intentional and knowingly” aspect of aggravated assault that makes that a harder statute to prove.

Circumstances change

Still, with domestic violence cases, there has always been the chance the victim and accused will reconcile after the police and courts become involved.

Consiglio thinks the new law gives prosecutors the ability to handle those situations if the right steps are taken during the investigation.

“A big thing you have in these cases is one of two things happen. It either causes a breakup and an end of the relationship, but then you also have those cases when your victim and the defendant fall in love again in a couple of days,” he said.

Consiglio said he does force victims to testify if needed and that can be done in a couple of ways. The best way, Consiglio said, is through recorded statements by the victim to police at the time the incident is reported. That way, even if the victim doesn’t want to testify on the stand, the tape can be used in questioning and the court can hear the allegations straight from the victim.

“People consistently want to change their minds,” Consiglio said of victims.

Whether it be because the accused is the household’s breadwinner or the victim doesn’t want to see them in trouble, victims often don’t want to go forward.

“I do think it’s a good idea to make it a severe crime and to take it out of the hands of the victims,” Consiglio said.

For police, it has meant more training, and Altoona police covered the topic during its annual training for officers, which includes updates to the criminal code, said Altoona police Detective Lt. Benjamin Jones.

“We received guidance from the District Attorney’s Office of questions we need to ask,” Jones said. “We need to corroborate or discount a person’s account of events when they allege they’ve been choked and there is no outward signs of injuries.”

For a small department like Duncansville Borough, officers will receive the new law as part of the regular updates provided to the department’s eight officers, Chief James Ott said. Ott said they haven’t had to respond to any cases involving the new law, but he sees it as an important tool in dealing with domestic violence cases.

“Without this law, you have to go with the standard assault law. This can now make it a felony, and that in and of itself changes the complexity of it,” Ott said, noting that he will be monitoring it and if need be offering additional training if officers need it.

“My biggest thing, we have a law that is allowing us a stronger tool of accountability to the actors and helps us protect victims,” Ott said.

Jones said under previous domestic violence laws, it was difficult to make an arrest without outward signs of injury. The new law changes that, which makes the questioning of the victim and suspect more crucial in situations where a claim of strangulation is made and there isn’t any physical injuries to document or photograph.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Jones said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to arrest people who have not committed a crime. There is the potential of people manipulating and taking advantage of it, but hopefully by training officers, that doesn’t happen.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2nsVPgj

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, http://www.altoonamirror.com

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