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Domestic Violence

The Truth About Domestic Violence Murders

New training is helping to stop the risk of intimate partner choking homicides.

At the scene of a domestic violence call, a cop who hears, “Officer, I only just choked her a little bit,” should immediately change his or her perspective about the seriousness of the situation. Death by the hands of an intimate partner — meaning the attacker didn’t use a weapon — is not new, but our awareness of strangulations and our approach to investigating this type of assault is shifting. And because the injuries left by these attacks are not always immediately visible or obvious to patrol cops, investigators, or paramedics, we’ve needed to create more advanced forensic techniques to discover the internal signs.

The Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention, a San Diego-based program of Alliance for HOPE International, was created in October 2011 to provide training and technical assistance to police, prosecutors, medical clinicians, and domestic violence advocates.

The Institute is led by Gael Strack, a veteran DV case prosecutor and Casey Gwinn, the former City Attorney for San Diego, a longtime DV prosecutor and victim’s advocate. Both are known for the creation of the “Family Justice Center” concept, which puts police investigators, prosecutors, social workers, family advocates, and domestic violence resource specialists in one physical location, to work together “vertically" to manage and prosecute domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and family-related crimes.

The “Strangulation in Intimate Partner Violence Fact Sheet,” found at their Training Institute offers some chilling statistics:

  • “Strangulation” is defined as “the obstruction of blood vessels and/or airflow in the neck resulting in asphyxia.” And just like you can’t be “a little bit pregnant,” victims can’t be “choked just a little bit” by attackers and not have serious, significant, permanent, or even fatal damage to their throats or brains. Brain cell death from choking is rapid and often fatal.
  • “One in four women will experience intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetimes, and of women at high risk, up to 68 percent will experience near-fatal strangulation by their partner. Loss of consciousness can occur within 5 to 10 minutes; death within minutes.” The defenses by an attacker that, “I didn’t know my own strength” or “I didn’t mean to choke her/him that hard” shouldn’t be valid anymore, and prosecutors are rightly moving to file attempted murder charges in these cases.
  • “97 percent of victims were strangled manually (with hands); 38 percent reported losing consciousness; 35 percent are strangled during sexual assault/abuse—9 percent is also pregnant, and 70 percent of strangled women believed they were going to die.” Sadly, these statistics are almost too painful to consider. Doctors, cops, prosecutors, and importantly, juries, have to hear these numbers and let their impact sink in.
  • The terrifying conclusion here is not only that if you have been choked before but you’re also likely to be choked again; it’s that you have a tremendous risk of being killed by someone who has choked you before.
  • “Only half of the victims have visible injuries, and of these, only 15 percent could be photographed.” The most common visible injuries are neck bruising and so-called “petechiae spots,” which show up on the face, scalp, mouth, earlobes, eyelids, and eyeballs of choked victims. Choking also causes damage to the victim’s throat, making breathing, swallowing, coughing, and talking difficult. Infrared forensic cameras can document tissue damage in the throat.
  • “Death can occur days or weeks after the attack due to carotid artery dissection and respiratory complications such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and the risk of blood clots traveling to the brain (embolization).”
  • “Psychological injury includes PTSD, depression, suicidal ideations, memory problems, nightmares, anxiety, severe stress reaction, amnesia, and psychosis.” Imagine what goes through the minds of victims after their partners have damaged their ability to eat, speak, and breathe?
  • “Today, 38 states have legislation against strangulation. The 2013 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) added strangulation and suffocation to federal law.” Why is it not addressed as “attempted murder” all 50 states?
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Source: Used by permission from

John Bailey, Senior Investigator for the County of Riverside (CA) District Attorney’s Office, who also had a long career as a detective for the San Diego Police Department, recently attended the Institute’s four-day training and said, “The statistics for domestic violence-related strangulation cases, especially those that lead to homicides, are alarming. In the past, it was not well-documented and not a forensic priority in DV homicides. Law enforcement investigators, health-care professionals, and local prosecutors have not been exposed to this type of training until now.”

Domestic violence victims’ advocates have known about the choking hazard for years. It’s time for the rest of the first- and second-responder communities to have this knowledge as well.

If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence relationship, seek help from the police and other qualified professionals and advocates who can create a plan for you and your children, and help save your life. If you’re in a relationship in which you have been previously choked, the need to get out should be dramatically displayed by the statistics above.

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For more help and information, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE) or visit