Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Many times we focus on what the Georgia General Assembly hasn’t done. What it missed. Or what it needs to do. In some cases, little attention is given to what has been achieved. That looks like the case with House Bill 911. Passed during the most recent legislative session, it adds teeth to existing law by creating a new felony classification that will help in the prosecution of abusers who assault people, often women, through choking and strangulation. Here’s an inside look.
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Choking crime with new law
By Greg Loughlin
On July 1, strangulation assault became a felony in Georgia. Strangulation, or “choking,” is a lethal act that interrupts blood flow, can cause permanent brain damage, loss of consciousness within 10 seconds and death within minutes. Most people aren’t aware of just how dangerous strangulation assault can be, especially since it often leaves no visible injury, or injuries appear later.
In the hours and days after an assault, a victim might experience difficulty breathing and swallowing, changes in their speech, nausea and vomiting, ruptured capillaries in the face, and memory loss. In the months and years following an assault, a victim might experience recurrent headaches, neck pain, cognitive deficits, and seizures.
While strangulation assault can be fatal, death is often not the intended outcome. Instead, abusers — most frequently men — use strangulation as a tool to control a victim. With hands tight around the victim’s neck, a batterer literally controls their next breath. And their message is clear: I could kill you if I wanted to.
The truth is that strangulation assault is highly correlated with eventual homicide. Victims of prior attempted strangulation are eight times more likely to be killed in the future by the same abuser, most often with a firearm.
With strangulation assault now a felony in Georgia, law enforcement officers and prosecutors are better equipped to prevent homicides by holding these dangerous offenders accountable. The Georgia Commission on Family Violence and other statewide partners are training first responders on the signs of strangulation in domestic assaults, providing law enforcement and medical professionals with heightened awareness to successfully document and respond to strangulation.
Of course, an improved criminal justice response helps only a small percentage of victims. A much larger number of victims only disclose their abuse to their friends and family. Because of this, it’s important that we all understand the impact and dangers of strangulation.
Here are some things that you can do to help the people you love and care about, potentially saving their lives.
• Refer victims to services. If someone tells you that their partner put hands around their neck, tell them that you are concerned for their safety. Encourage them to call a local domestic violence program and to seek immediate medical attention. Domestic violence advocacy services include support groups and safety planning and are confidential and free of charge. A person does not have to leave their relationship to access these services. Call Georgia’s 24-hour statewide hotline at 1-800-33-HAVEN to speak with an advocate, or visit the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence at http://www.gcadv.org to find the nearest program.
• Challenge the messages men use to justify strangulation. Many men have received training in strangulation either directly through the military, law enforcement, self-defense training, or through messages conveyed in ultimate fighting, video games and pornography. We must acknowledge the sources where men learn to use strangulation as a control tactic, and we must counter those messages by requiring that men respect the women and children in their lives.
• Hold men who strangle their partners accountable. When a man puts his hands around the neck of a woman, he is quite literally a potential killer. And since children so frequently witness these atrocious acts of violence, he is also a teacher. We must hold men accountable for their actions and stop the generational cycle of domestic violence.
To learn more, please visit Men Stopping Violence (www.menstoppingviolence.org) or reach out to the Commission (www.gcfv.org) to be connected to a local Domestic Violence Task Force or Family Violence Intervention Program.
Greg Loughlin is executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence.
Behind the scenes: A tool to fight abuse
By Mandi Ballinger
There are many beginnings to legislation. Some don’t begin under the Gold Dome, but rather in a courtroom. This past session, I carried House Bill 911. HB 911 serves to strengthen and clarify strangulation prosecution under the aggravated assault statute.
Some detractors might protest the over-criminalization of society, saying there are more than enough laws on the books to govern our behavior, and that more are not needed to make us a more just society. But it was essential for our state to make this statement to abusers and bullies alike: This behavior will not be tolerated, and we recognize the seriousness of the offense.
Some background is needed: While strangulation was added to the aggravated assault statute this year, it was already a crime. Our courts had determined that hands could be deadly weapons. People have been choked to death. The use of hands to choke a victim does thereby satisfy the deadly weapon or dangerous object element of aggravated assault.
That’s not enough, though. As with any case, the state must prove intent, an essential element of any crime. In order to prove aggravated assault the prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to harm or intended to commit an act which placed another in fear of receiving a violent injury. When trying to prove an offense under the aggravated assault statute, the prosecutor must prove an intent to harm.
So why bring the legislation? Case law had established that choking or strangling someone with one’s hands is an aggravated assault, why codify the offense?
Here’s why: Too often the crime was not being prosecuted as a felony. Law enforcement officers, placed in very stressful situations requiring quick decisions, would frequently seek a warrant for a misdemeanor, often battery if the offender left red marks around the neck of the victim.
Fast-forward a few weeks or months, and the victim is sitting in the prosecuting attorney’s office, describing the incident. The victim describes their terrifying encounter, with the perpetrator looming over them, with their hands around the victim’s throat, powerless to call out or even breathe. The prosecutor recognizes the crime of aggravated assault, a felony. But the prosecutor is an assistant solicitor general, tasked with prosecuting misdemeanors; the aggravated assault is a felony, which should be handled by the district attorney’s office. So the prosecutor sends the case to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
The assistant district attorney sees a weak case. If the proper evidence been collected at the crime scene, with follow-up photos taken of bruising and the documentation of injuries over time, it might have been winnable. Months later, however, it is no longer an easy case to prove.
The 2014 General Assembly strengthened existing law to protect citizens victimized by criminals. HB 911 supplies necessary guidance to law enforcement officers responding to calls and gathering evidence while simultaneously providing prosecutors with the necessary framework to ultimately hold perpetrators accountable.
The aggravated assault statute now clearly provides an effective tool for the prosecution of a serious offense, sending an equally clear message to bullies and abusers that Georgia will prosecute violence of this nature to the fullest extent of the law.
State representative Mandi Ballinger, a Republican, serves District 23 in Canton.