By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
More states are trying to reduce fatal domestic assaults by increasing penalties against abusers who choke their victims.
New Hampshire and Delaware in May become the latest states to pass laws making it a felony to choke someone. A similar law that passed both houses of the New York Legislature this month awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. David Paterson.
States are targeting choking incidents because when an abuser tries to strangle someone in a domestic assault, it is a leading indicator that he will escalate his attacks and eventually kill his victim, says Gael Strack, a former prosecutor and founder of the Family Justice Center Alliance, which helps abuse victims.
Strack says states also need to train officers and prosecutors to look for evidence of strangulation, which can be hard to prove without bruises on the victim.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found 43% of women who were murdered in domestic assaults and 45% who were victims of attempted murder had been choked in the past year by their male partners.
Twenty-nine states have laws that make strangulation a crime, says the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, a program of the National District Attorneys Association.
New Hampshire passed its law after Melissa Cantin Charbonneau, 29, a mother and nurse, was killed by her husband two days after he tried to strangle her.
Jonathan Charbonneau, 32, shot and killed her in October. He also shot his father-in-law and then killed himself, a report by the state attorney general found. He was out on $30 bail after being charged with a misdemeanor for throwing her down a flight of stairs and trying to strangle her.
Her father, John Cantin, who survived the shooting, says his daughter would still be alive if her killer had been in jail, charged with a felony.
“I’m doing this for my daughter,” he says. “I don’t believe this bill will stop the person doing the choking, but at least when it does happen and they are arrested, they are put away.”
In Delaware, two state troopers who tracked domestic abuse cases found that over a four-month period, more than half of the cases in one county involving strangulation were prosecuted as misdemeanors, says Brian Selander, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jack Markell. The troopers pushed for the new law, which carries a penalty of up to five years.
In New York, Democratic State Sen. Eric Schneiderman introduced a strangulation bill after chairing a committee that investigated a state senator for domestic abuse. During the hearings, he learned there was no penalty for strangulation, even though women who were choked have a higher risk of being killed by their partner.
“I’m just sorry it took us so long in New York state to do this,” he says. “I think this will save a lot of lives.”