Tips for improving non-fatal strangulation investigations

Lack of visible injuries and sometimes reluctant victims make these tough cases to investigate


Imagine gasping for air as your assailant squeezes your neck as they exert their power over you. Domestic violence is often observed to be an offender exerting control over another person through violent means. And nothing expresses that dominance and control than squeezing a person's neck, literally controlling whether they breathe or not.

Some studies suggest that 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. [1] Of those women, 68% will experience near-fatal strangulation. [1] Women who have experienced non-fatal strangulation are seven times more likely to be murdered. [2] It falls upon law enforcement to recognize the signs and take the necessary steps to hold offenders accountable.

However, intimate partner violence can be tricky to investigate for even a seasoned police officer. One reason is that victims sometimes don’t cooperate or don’t give a full statement about what happened. Victims are sometimes reluctant because they don’t think they’ll be believed (offenders often use psychological manipulation to convince them of this long before officers have been dispatched). The other complication is that non-fatal strangulation often doesn’t leave a visible mark, with some studies suggesting as few as 15% of attacks leave a mark that can be photographed. [3]

Intimate partner violence can be tricky to investigate for even a seasoned police officer.
Intimate partner violence can be tricky to investigate for even a seasoned police officer. (Pixabay)

You can combat this by taking the time to listen and look for supporting evidence. Things to consider are:   

  • Visible injuries: Look for scratches/bruising around the neck, pulled hair, petechiae eye and scratches on the offender, especially on the arms/hands.
  • Nonvisible injuries: Coughing, neck tenderness, a raspy voice and difficulty talking are all indicators that something is wrong.
  • Losing oxygen to the brain even for a short amount of time can cause memory loss so gaps in the victim's account may be an indicator of truth rather than a sign of deception.
  • Vomiting, defecation and/or urination are all potential signs as well. This is especially important to keep in mind if the offender is claiming the victim is too intoxicated to be believed.
  • Was the victim sexually assaulted as well? Many abusers who strangle also use sexual violence to further control the victim. As many as 35% of women report sexual violence in addition to near-fatal strangulation. Proving sexual assault between intimate partners can be challenging but if nothing else, it helps to show the entire picture of abuse and may lead to more evidence being discovered.

Addressing victims' reluctance to cooperate

Victims sometimes don’t cooperate because they still care for the abuser and don’t want to see them get in trouble. I’ve found that talking them through the reality of the situation is a successful tactic.

Explaining the statistics to them so they know the risk of death they run by staying in the situation can help, as can helping them to realize all the warnings and last chances they gave the offender before calling 911.

Another option is simply to explain that taking the offender to jail for the night is temporary and they can inform the court what they want once they’ve had time to think it over. This may gain enough cooperation to help build your case further so the prosecutor will have more options later on in court.

Sometimes victims are reluctant because they’re afraid of leaving their abuser. In the world the victim inhabits, the abuser has had time, sometimes years, to convince them that if they leave, they will be punished severely. Death, financial ruin and convincing them they’ll never see their kids again are just some of the tactics abusers use to maintain control over their victims. You combat this by having a team in place before you arrive. If you don’t have a plan to keep the victim safe, a viable option for housing, or where they can obtain affordable legal advice, your case is doomed before you start. [4]

Additional complications

It is essential you have contacts in your community and know what resources are available to assist domestic violence victims. The more options you have, the more likely is it that the victim will feel empowered to stand up for themselves and cooperate with the investigation.

The next and most pressing issue to consider is the risk of delayed death in strangulation cases. Despite the lack of visible injuries, strangulation causes a number of internal issues that if not treated properly can lead to death even if the victim appears fine in front of you. [5] All reported strangulation victims need to be seen by medical professionals, ideally by someone familiar with the dynamics of manual strangulation and most likely they will need to be hospitalized for a more in-depth evaluation.

The added benefit of seeking medical treatment is that the attending physician and/or nurse is better able to document and observe any soft tissue or internal injuries that law enforcement may not see. Adding those medical records to your case file can help to prove in court the seriousness of the assault. It also can be helpful in court when the doctor testifies to the full extent of the injury. Some states allow medical testimony into court as an exception to the hearsay rule [6], which can be useful if your victim fails to show up or struggles to explain what happened to the jury.

Recognizing the seriousness of non-fatal strangulation and taking the time to investigate the allegations rather than making an assumption based only on what you can see may save a victim's life. Doing so may be just what is needed to get to the truth and hold the offender accountable. 

References

1. Impact of Strangulation Crimes. (n.d.). Www.strangulationtraininginstitute.com.

2. Glass N, Laughon K, Campbell J, Block CR, Hanson G, Sharps PW, Taliaferro E. (2008). Non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide of women. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 35(3), 329–335.

3. Strack GB, McClane GE, Hawley D. (2001). A review of 300 attempted strangulation cases. Part I: criminal legal issues. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 21(3), 303–309.

4. Rahman N. (n.d.). Domestic violence survivors struggle to find housing. These advocates want to change that. Detroit Free Press. 

5. Di Paolo M, Guidi B, Bruschini L, Vessio G, Domenici R, Ambrosino N. (2016). Unexpected, delayed death after manual strangulation: need for careful examination in the emergency room. Monaldi Archives for Chest Disease, 71(3).

6. Rule 803 - Hearsay Exceptions; Availability of Declarant Immaterial, Mich. R. Evid. 803 | Casetext Search + Citator. (n.d.). Casetext.com.

NEXT: Evolving police response to domestic violence calls

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