State News

November 30, 2013

Effort afoot to make strangulation a felony

A drunken Athens man in May used a key to get into the apartment of the mother of his children. He then choked her after she refused to loan him her vehicle.

Franklin Johnson was arrested and charged with simple battery for the assault, and less than a month later he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense and was sentenced to one year on probation.

A local prosecutor and Athens area domestic violence advocates are currently working to change state law so that people can be charged with a felony when they choke a victim.

In recent years, 36 states have enacted legislation to make choking a more serious offense, and Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm said it’s time for Georgia to get on board.

“When an abuser chokes his victim there is something much serious underlying. It’s a lethality factor,” Chisholm said. “When the abuser does that, he’s saying, ‘I have the ability to kill you.’ “

A person can be killed by being choked just as easily as if they were shot or stabbed, said Chisholm, who prosecutes misdemeanor cases in State Court.

“The fact that many people are strangled and live doesn’t make it any less of a felony than if I shoot someone and they live,” he said.

Chisholm intended to meet with state lawmakers and domestic violence advocates to discuss the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly. He wants to change the language of the existing aggravated assault statute so that it includes choking with other forms of attempted murder, an offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

“It’s important to make it what it really is, a felony case,” he said.

Chisholm is currently serving as president of the Georgia Association of Solicitors General, which he said placed changing the law to make choking a felony on its legislative agenda.

Joining him in Atlanta on a recent Friday was Joan Prittie, executive director of the Athens-based domestic violence agency Project Safe. She and other advocates are lobbying legislators for a change in the law.

“Strangulation is a common and typical tactic of domestic violence abusers and it’s under reported because in about half of the studied cases it doesn’t leave any physical injury that can be documented, which makes it harder to prove,” she said.

Even though strangulation is defined as the act of choking someone until they are dead, Prittie and Chisholm don’t want the word “choke” to appear in any legislation to describe what many domestic violence victims endure.

“We minimize it culturally by calling it choking,” she said. “You choke on food, but when someone puts their hands on you they are strangling you.”

Too often, Prittie said, the public, and even victims, undercut the serious nature of the act.

“The critical thing is, on the one hand it’s an act that is very dangerous and potentially lethal, and on the other hand it’s been so minimized that even our clients will tell us, ‘Oh well, he did this and that to me, and I guess he choked me too,”’ Prittie said.

Under current Georgia law, a person commits simple battery when he or she “intentionally makes contact of an insulting or provoking nature” with another, or “intentionally causes physical harm to another.”

The maximum penalty for simple battery is a year confinement.

Abusers often are never charged with the misdemeanor because police officers are unable to see visible injuries, Prittie said.

“What’s ironic is that strangulation is what’s most likely to lead someone to dying, yet the black eyes is what gets prosecuted,” she said.

In some states, police officers receive training on how to identify the more nuanced signs of strangulation, including a victim’s raspy voice, bloodshot eyes and involuntary urination.

Victim’s complaining about being choked in abusive relationships are commonplace in Athens.

Last week, for example, 21-year-old C.W. Hammond III was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend while holding a knife to her throat and choking her.

Athens-Clarke County police said that while scuffling with the woman, Hammond knocked her onto a bed, pinned her down, held a knife to her throat with one hand and choked her with the other.

In addition to the legislative component to address the problem of domestic-violence choking, there’s an educational one as well, according to Chisholm.

“If for some reason we are unable to get (a new law) enacted next year, it’s important that we at least get the conversation going to make people in law enforcement, and members of the judiciary and community, aware of how serious strangulation is,” the prosecutor said.

According to Prittie, choking can cause brain damage with as little as 4 pounds of pressure and death in under five minutes.

“It’s a way the abuser communicates control and domination,” she said. “When they’re strangling someone they very often are face-to-face and looking them in the eyes, conveying the message, ‘You’re life is in my hands.’"

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