The Silent Control of Strangulation
CW: Intimate partner violence
In March of 1995, 17-year-old Casondra Stewart called the San Diego Police Department to report that her boyfriend, 21-year-old Alfonzo Terrell Merritt, had strangled her. The case was initially assigned to a domestic violence unit detective, but the case was soon closed due to a lack of evidence. Two weeks later, she was stabbed to death by her boyfriend in front of friends.
Two months later, 16-year-old Tamara Smith was found dead in a field in San Diego. Her body had been burned, and an autopsy revealed she had been strangled. That same day, her 18-year-old boyfriend, Mario Andre Rushing, was supposed to attend an arraignment hearing; he was facing earlier domestic violence charges against Smith. While these two crimes happened more than two decades ago, they’ve made a lasting impression in the field of intimate partner violence (IPV).
In both cases, strangulation was part of a longer history of IPV. One of the most common questions asked about victims of IPV is “why does she stay?” In Stewart’s case, the teen was already denying the fact that she’d been strangled by the time the police officers arrived. Unfortunately, leaving an abuser is one of the most dangerous times in a victim’s life; it’s an insidious catch-22 that leaves countless women stuck in a cycle of violence. Abusers will employ a variety of tactics to maintain power and control, such as emotional abuse, isolation, intimidation, and physical violence. If an abuser is particularly conniving, he’ll favor physical abuse that leaves few marks on his victim. This is where non-fatal strangulation comes into play.
Most often perpetrated by men against women, non-fatal strangulation is a method of gaining control over a victim by cutting off or limiting air supply. Approximately 50 percent of victims of non-fatal strangulation show visible injuries, and even the most experienced professionals can find it difficult to identify signs of strangulation. Even in fatal cases, there are oftentimes no external signs of injury. Plus, most abusers do not strangle to kill — they strangle to show they can kill. This makes it such a powerful tool for an abuser; even if a woman is seeking out professional help, her abuser can continue to strangle her without creating physical marks.
A victim of IPV is 750 percent more likely to be killed by their partner when previously strangled by that same person. Yet, the nature of non-fatal strangulation is difficult to prosecute due to its lack of visible evidence. For an abuser, this is another benefit of non-fatal strangulation, particularly since the criminal justice system favors cases with physical evidence. This often results in felony assaults being charged as misdemeanors, especially if investigators are unfamiliar with the subtler signs of non-fatal strangulation. Less obvious symptoms include voice, throat, and breathing changes, such as a raspy or hoarse voice, trouble swallowing, and difficulty breathing. As seen in the deaths of Stewart and Smith, though, strangulation cases often don’t even make it into the courtroom due to their lack of physical visibility, which translates to legal invisibility.
After the murders of Stewart and Smith, then-San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn began analyzing existing strangulation cases being prosecuted in his office. His research found that there was little to no visible injury in most cases. Recognizing a pattern, he went on to research non-fatal strangulation with Gael Strack, then a prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. They also began conducting nationwide trainings on non-fatal strangulation. They pursued this work for two decades to advance the understanding of non-fatal strangulation for professionals working in IPV. After recognizing the need to continue this crucial training, Strack and Gwinn formally created the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a program of Alliance for HOPE International, in October 2011. Thanks to their research and trainings, non-fatal strangulation became a recognized risk factor in IPV, including in the criminal justice system.
With an increased awareness of non-fatal strangulation, the criminal justice system’s understanding of this violent act is slowly improving. Many civil and criminal legal reforms have been enacted in the last decade, and many states have passed legislation that specifically criminalizes strangulation. According to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, 45 states have passed felony strangulation laws. If these laws were in place in 1995, Stewart and Smith might be alive today.
Regardless of these legal reforms, though, non-fatal strangulation continues to be a tool used by perpetrators of IPV. While the general population questions a victim’s choice to stay in a relationship, countless women know that there's a form of silent control waiting for her at home.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: www.thehotline.org :: 1 (800) 799-7233
Funk, M., & Schuppel, J. (2003). Strangulation injuries. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 102(3), 41-45.
Shields, L. B., Corey, T. S., Weakley-Jones, B., & Stewart, D. (2010). Living Victims of Strangulation. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 31(4), 320-325. doi:10.1097/paf.0b013e3181d3dc02
Wilbur, L., Higley, M., Hatfield, J., Surprenant, Z., Taliaferro, E., Smith, D. J., & Paolo, A. (2001). Survey Results of Women Who Have Been Strangled While in an Abusive Relationship. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 21(3), 297-302. doi:10.1016/s0736-4679(01)00398-5.