When she opened the door, he shoved his way into the house. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her across the floor. When he came to a stop, he wrapped both hands around her throat and began to squeeze.
He squeezed until she began to lose consciousness. He told her how easy it would be to kill her — to kill her family — like this.
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Scenes like the one above are common — so common, in fact, that there’s a separate law in Mississippi separating strangulation in domestic violence cases from other physical assaults like kicking or punching. More than 65 percent of victims of intimate partner violence will experience near-fatal choking, according to the Training Institute of Strangulation Prevention, part of the Alliance for HOPE, an international organization combating domestic violence and sexual assault. In Lowndes County in the last two weeks, three men have been arrested for aggravated domestic violence after choking a current or former romantic partner — one of whom specifically told the victim as he was strangling her that he wanted her to know how easy it would be to kill her and her family.
In recent years, Mississippi passed a law making strangling in cases of domestic violence an automatic felony, whereas punching or kicking a victim is usually a misdemeanor.
The danger of losing air
“It’s because of the danger of strangling somebody, taking their breath away even for a short period of time,” District Attorney Scott Colom said.
It takes four to five minutes for someone to go into cardiac arrest from choking, said Dr. Scott Stringer, professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“Once you stop getting oxygen to your lungs, then your heart shuts down,” he said. “You first go into respiratory arrest … then you start going into cardiac arrest. Blockage from squeezing versus blockage from food would be the same.”
But strangulation causes other injuries that wouldn’t be caused from choking on food.
“The bigger issue is that the blood is not going to the head,” Stringer said.
That causes the victim to pass out, and even if they survive, they can suffer brain damage. Choking someone can also cause damage to the trachea, voice box or esophagus, any of which can happen instantly, he said. Still the worst effect is potential brain damage from losing blood flow to the head.
And of course, it can be fatal, even weeks later, thanks to that brain damage.
Choking often leads to homicide
In general, the risk of a victim being murdered by his or her abuser increases dramatically once the partner has strangled them. The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention puts the odds of homicide at a 750 percent increase once a victim is choked by an abuser.
“This is the actual act of taking away the very substance we need to survive,” said therapist Keenyn Wald, clinical coordinator at The Pines and Cady Hill in downtown Columbus. “I don’t know if you can get more controlling in terms of behavior.”
Choking someone could be the final step before killing them, Wald said, but it’s rarely the first step. Generally abuse in relationships starts out minor — sometimes even with jokes about violence — and gets worse and worse.
“(Once you’re strangled), you’ve probably been hit, you’ve probably been restrained, you’ve probably been trapped in a room with your partner blocking the door,” he said. “Strangling and choking is pretty much the culmination of all those things because you’re getting restrained, held and typically hurt all at the same time.
“If I’m sitting there with a client that’s talking about being strangled, I’m immediately going to have some conversations with her about how to stay safe,” he added. “Because the risk of homicide increases dramatically.”
Psychologically, the effects on the victim aren’t much better. Victims of domestic violence frequently blame themselves for abuse.
“(They think) ‘If I had only done something differently, my partner wouldn’t have done this’,” Wald said. “And the language abusers often use is, ‘I’m sorry, you made me so mad I did this.’ It’s almost like a corner store blaming themselves for getting (broken into).”
Challenges prosecuting attackers
It’s a concern for Colom who said victims also don’t want to come forward all the time.
“I’ve been shocked the last four or five years since I’ve been doing criminal prosecution — first as a city prosecutor, now as District Attorney — at how often the victims of these types of crimes are more concerned about protecting the person who did it than preventing it from happening to them again,” he said. “It’s almost cliche to hear that, the victims don’t want to prosecute, but it’s very real.”
That’s why people have to know how dangerous these situations are, he said. Victims need to get help and their friends and family need to encourage them to get help.
There are safe places for them to go, Wald said. They usually have friends and family who would help them if they could, and if they don’t, they can go to Safe Haven, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. And they should go to law enforcement.
“If I could convince the world of anything, it would be that if there is abuse in a relationship, … then the person being abused is not at fault,” Wald said. “If I could convince anybody of anything it would be that — that it’s not your fault, that you deserve better and that you should get help … There’s no excuse for violence in a relationship, none whatsoever.”