Oregon state attorney general calls for public support to make strangulation a serious crime instead of a misdemeanor

By Sanne Specht
Mail Tribune (Southern Oregon)
March 20, 2011

He wraps his hands around his wife's neck and squeezes. When she screams for help, he smothers her face with a pillow.

Luckily for this particular victim, another family member manages to call police. The wife survives. Her husband pleads guilty to the misdemeanor crime of strangulation and is sentenced to 30 days in Jackson County Jail and two years' probation.

The violent scenario — and the consequences — are all too common in the Rogue Valley and across the state, say domestic violence experts and Oregon's attorney general.

Two days before this domestic violence incident, Medford resident Bonnie Susan Payne was strangled to death. Payne's partner, Mitchell Alan Below, faces a murder charge.

Murder is a Measure 11 crime. Should Below be found guilty, he will be sentenced to life in prison with a 25-year minimum sentence.

The legal distinction between a slap on the wrist and a potential life sentence appears to lie in the victim's ability to survive the attack. But state Attorney General John Kroger is seeking the public's support for proposed legislation that would make strangulation a felony crime.

Strangulations are often "not treated like serious crimes because they are not listed as serious crimes," said Kroger at a recent domestic violence forum in Ashland, presented by the American Association of University Women.

"They are misdemeanors. We need to make strangulation a felony in Oregon."

Studies show victims who are strangled are nine times more likely to end up murdered by their partners, said Gerry Sea, with Victims Services at Community Works.

"The intent, when you strangle someone, is to cut off their ability to breathe," said Sea. "That is not only terrifying, the consequences to the victim are often lifelong — if they survive."

Strangulation is often used by abusers in domestic violence and sexual assaults as a form of power and control — and it is effective. Unconsciousness may occur within seconds and death within minutes. The message to the victim is that the batterer holds the power to take the victim's life, quickly and with minimal effort, and also in a manner that may leave little evidence of an altercation, Sea said.

Life and death can swing on mere ounces of pressure and seconds of terror. Some victims may have no visible injuries whatsoever, yet because of underlying brain damage due to the lack of oxygen during the strangulation assault, they may have serious internal injuries or die days, or even weeks, later, Sea said.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, strangulation is one of the top five risk factors in domestic violence homicides.

Smothering, choking, strangulation — call it what you will. It is past time Oregon law recognize this crime as a felony act, said Kroger as he asked for support of a bill he helped write, House Bill 2940.

A second bill, HB 2971, also has been proposed that would elevate the crime under certain circumstances, he added.

Sea said earlier bills seeking to make strangulation a felony have not passed through the legislative process.

Kroger said domestic violence laws in Oregon remain shadowed by a false mentality that has deemed such crimes "a family matter," and "none of the government's business."

Meanwhile, 67 domestic violence victims, mostly women and children, have been killed in Oregon over the past two years, he said.

"Eight (victims have died) so far this year," Kroger said.

Studies show 57 percent of domestic violence murder victims had been strangled, he said.

"They were asphyxiated short of death at least once and often dozens of times," Kroger said.

Kroger acknowledged that domestic violence cases can be difficult to prosecute. There often are no witnesses. Sometimes the victim is unwilling to testify. Sometimes the police did not receive proper domestic violence training, he said.

"Better training for law enforcement is necessary," Kroger said.

But compounding these issues is the fact that domestic violence caseloads are typically given to newly fledged prosecutors. Consequently, strangulation, like many acts of domestic abuse, are not treated as serious crimes, not investigated as thoroughly, not punished with as much severity, Kroger said.

"This is not something your government is going to fix for you. This is something you're going to have to get your government to fix," Kroger said. "I would love your help in getting (HB 2940) passed."

Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston said his department handled 89 strangulation cases last year. He supports efforts to make the crime a felony. But Huddleston said HB 2940 only bumps strangulation from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony, the lowest ranking crime in the felony category. Because of felony sentencing guidelines, a first-time offender might serve even less time should the bills pass, he said.

"For example, the presumptive sentence on a first-time offense would be 20 days," Huddleston said.

However, Huddleston added, felony convictions carry cumulative consequences, and further convictions would ratchet up jail time considerably. Also, he said, if an offender had previous felony convictions, jail time would be longer.

"I support any efforts to make (strangulation) a felony," Huddleston said.

In a large proportion of strangulation cases, children are present during the assault. Sometimes they are direct victims, Sea said.

"We are seeing this at Dunn House," she said, referring to the Rogue Valley's shelter for victims of domestic violence and their children. "There is long-term emotional scarring. What is it like to have someone you think loves you try to kill you by strangling you or suffocating you?"

Kroger said 95 percent of domestic violence organizations such as Community Works' Dunn House have experienced increased demand for services, while 86 percent have experienced budget cuts. Kroger urged those attending the domestic violence forum to donate to one of the local organizations that "shelters, counsels or runs a hot line to help women in the Rogue Valley."

"We need to make sure victims know how to get help," Kroger said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Did you know?

Studies show children are present in more than 40 percent of strangulation cases. Experts estimate that number could be even higher, because some victims are unwilling to admit their children witnessed a violent attack, and police may not have noted a child's presence in their report.