Investigating Domestic Violence Strangulation

According to the National District Attorneys Association, 10% of violent deaths in the United States are attributable to strangulation. That is a huge number, and one that demands police officers properly investigate and document strangulation cases. Recognizing the signs of strangulation is the first step in prosecuting this type of battery.

Typically, the first indicator a police officer may have in a strangulation case is the victim’s statements. The victim may say “He choked me!” This is a good first indicator of a serious attack.

strangulationA quick note about terminology. “Choking” is what happens when something lodges in the throat, blocking the airway. For example, a piece of food. “Strangulation” is what happens when someone grabs another person’s neck/throat, and begins to cut of air and blood flow. Most victims will say “choke,” but you better say “strangle” when testifying.

External signs of a strangulation victim may be very minor, if they are visible at all. San Diego conducted a survey of 300 misdemeanor strangulation cases. In 50% of the cases, there was no visible injuries. Another 35% had visible injuries so minor, that they would not show up in photographs. That means that the victims in only 15% of all strangulation cases studied had injuries significant enough to (1) be seen, and (2) be photographed.

When present, visible injuries may include:

  • redness to the neck
  • scratch marks on the neck (from the victim trying to remove her attacker’s hands)
  • thumb print bruising
  • petechiae (red spots) in the eyes, or in the skin of the neck, head, and face
  • neck swelling

Additionally, a police officer may hear the victim’s voice as raspy, or the victim may even lose her voice entirely. About 50% of all strangulation victims experience a voice change from the physical trauma.

Other signs that strangulation has occured:

  • the victim “blacked out” or lost consciousness
  • the victim lost control of their bowels or bladder
  • breathing difficulty
  • unusual behavior changes

domestic violence investigation petechiae exampleI strongly recommend that you have EMS respond to the scene for any victim of strangulation. Minor bruising to some of the neck muscles that are not even visible, can swell and cut off the blood flow causing death up to 36 hours after the attack. Even if the victim refuses treatment, you can show you provided every opportunity for her to receive treatment.

I’ll follow up this post with additional information on the lethality of strangulation, and suggestions on how to document it to enhance your ability to prosecute these cases.

Stay safe!

Additional articles on domestic violence strangulation:

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Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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