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Make strangulation a first-degree felony assault in Maryland

Strangulations will get someone charged with a misdemeanor in Maryland. Some people want to see that increased to a first degree felony assault.
Strangulations will get someone charged with a misdemeanor in Maryland. Some people want to see that increased to a first degree felony assault.

“He said he was going to kill me. I have marks and bruises all over me. He choked me out. This wasn’t even the first incident.”

After taking herself to the hospital, this is what our victim reported when she filed a written complaint against her attacker after he beat, stomped, bit and choked her in May of 2019. This is just one of the more than 300 complaints of strangulation my office reviews on a yearly basis.

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This woman’s physical symptoms were not just minor bruises. They were the typical injuries seen in second degree assault cases. The victim was so violently beaten that the whites of her eyes were bloodshot red from burst blood vessels — a symptom known as petechiae, usually the result of being strangled or choked.

The injuries warranted so much more than the misdemeanor charge her attacker would get. But under Maryland law, this case and thousands like it around the state are charged and prosecuted as misdemeanors. I, along with medical and domestic violence experts nationwide, know that this is not right, and despite what the law says, the act of strangling someone is much more brutal than a misdemeanor. Strangulation is a serious and potentially deadly physical assault. It needs to be raised to the level of first degree felony assault under Maryland law.

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That is why I am calling on Maryland lawmakers to enact new legislation this General Assembly session that adds suffocation and strangulation to the first degree assault statute. Strangulation and suffocation have been aggravating factors in sexual assault cases for decades and it’s time to give our domestic violence victims better protections. According to a 2008 study by the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a victim of strangulation is seven times more likely to end up a homicide statistic.

Changing the law will result in more charges that better align with the crime and more appropriate sentencing, and it will enable state’s attorneys in Maryland to save lives and better protect the public.

Since the mid-1990s, strangulation has been identified as one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence. Victims may experience unconsciousness within 5-10 seconds and death within minutes. The impacts of strangulation are often hard to see from the naked eye. Statistics indicate that up to 50% of survivors who report an attack will have no marks on their necks, approximately 35% will have very minor marks and only 15% will have enough injury to be photographed.

Though the injuries are not visible, they can be life threatening. Strangulation can lead to loss of consciousness, brain damage, internal bleeding, carotid artery and vascular damage and larynx and trachea fractures. That is why we applaud the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center for being at the forefront of utilizing advanced technology to identify strangulation injury. The hospital is providing forensic examinations for non-fatal strangulations similar to sexual assault forensic exams. The forensic exam uses cutting edge technology that helps identify strangulation injury.

Beyond the trauma that often follows an assault involving strangulation, survivors can develop life-threatening complications days or even weeks after the event. Patients have died from blood clots that later traveled to the brain. Strangulation patients are at higher risk of stroke or aneurysm and can experience lasting neurological damage and respiratory conditions such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Currently, Maryland is one of three states and the District of Columbia that has yet to pass legislation that considers strangulation a felony. Lawmakers have acknowledged the seriousness of strangulation in the past. In 2012, the Maryland State Legislature attempted to pass two bills that would have recognized the serious threat that strangulation can pose on an individual. Since 2012, although these bills, and versions thereof, have been introduced, they have not been enacted into law. The last time lawmakers considered a bill that would consider strangulation a first-degree assault in Maryland was a Senate bill in 2017.

When someone is being strangled, they struggle to breathe and the world around them can go dark. Within seconds, they are unconscious. Four minutes later, they could be dead. The consequences of strangulation are serious enough to justify a change in the law.

It is time that lawmakers recognize the lethality associated with strangulation. It is time for us to join the majority of the states in the country that recognize that strangulation is a felony. This is a fight worth taking on. Changing the law must be a priority for Maryland.

Aisha N. Braveboy (anbraveboy@co.pg.md.us) is the Prince George’s County state’s attorney.

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