What's It Take for Awareness of Domestic Strangulation Issues?
Monday, October 3, 2005 10:40 AM


The article on Minnesota's new felony strangulation law (Aug. 23) addresses the importance of training police officers and medical personnel to recognize the injuries associated with strangulation. It also emphasizes the need to raise public awareness on the lethality and frequency of strangulation in domestic violence. A recent case in Hennepin County illustrates this.

In early December 2004, Minneapolis police responded to a 911 domestic abuse call. When they arrived, they found a woman in tears sitting on the floor, looking dazed. She was talking so softly it was difficult to hear her. According to the complaint, several children were present, and they told the officers that their stepfather had been arguing with their mother and had grabbed her neck from behind and strangled her. Two of the children said that they had tried to "awake" her after she lost consciousness. Their stepfather had fled the home.

At a civil hearing petitioning for an order for protection, the victim described the assault: "He grabbed me from behind, not with his hands, with his forearm, and choked me, until I had no air in my body at all. I couldn't breathe, period. I wasn't gasping for air because I couldn't get any air. All I remember is me scratching his arm to get it off my neck. And I passed out."

The victim was taken to the hospital, where medical staff observed, documented and photographed a red mark along the side of her neck consistent with being strangled.

The Hennepin County attorney's office reviewed the police report and charged the defendant with felony third-degree assault for inflicting "substantial bodily harm." He was also charged with interference with a 911 call and endangerment of a child, both gross misdemeanors.

To prove her case to the jury, the prosecutor played the recording of the 911 call made by the victim's 12-year-old daughter telling the operator that her mother was not speaking. She revealed that the girl was hiding in the basement closet while making the call. The prosecutor had the doctor who had seen the victim when she was brought to the hospital testify. He said her injuries were consistent with strangulation.

And the prosecutor had the three children, ages 12, 13 and 14, who were in the home when the assault occurred take the stand. One witnessed the assault. Another saw the victim, her aunt, laying on the floor unconscious. When one of the children asked the defendant what had happened, he responded, "Your mother hit me, so I choked her." It seemed like an open and shut case: Eyewitnesses, medical records, 911 call recording.

The jury found the defendant not guilty despite the evidence and aggressive prosecution.

WATCH, a court monitoring organization, had monitors in the courtroom throughout the trial. The day the defendant took the stand, WATCH had a monitor present. Afterwards he said that though he believed the victim, he had a hard time believing that the defendant was capable of the crime. The defendant looked like a good family man. He talked about taking in the victim's children and caring for them. He talked about how hard he works. And he cried about how badly he felt about "what happened."

I can only speculate as to why the jurors did not believe the defendant was guilty. But more than likely it came down to this: The defendant appeared to fulfill the traditional role of family provider and an all-around good guy who was defending himself after being struck by a woman, an action that contradicts the woman's traditional role of nurturer and care giver.

Even though extensive research repeatedly shows that batterers function normally in social settings and within their work environments, this information is not well-known by the general public or if known, not believed.

Minnesota's felony strangulation law provides one more tool for law enforcement and the justice system to intervene in potentially fatal assaults.

But in addition to training police officers and medical personnel, we need to challenge our own beliefs about who is and who is not a batterer. And we need to educate the public on the power dynamics that exist in domestic abuse.

Anderson is executive director of WATCH.