More than 100 charged under new Pennsylvania strangulation law
April 10, 2017 12:00 AM
Post-Gazette photo illustration
By Liz Navratil / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Early Thursday morning, a Lincoln Place man was scheduled for a hearing on charges that he choked his daughter.
A short while later, in a courthouse less than 10 miles away, an Etna man waived his hearing on charges that he repeatedly strangled his girlfriend.
Later that same day, other hearings were scheduled for a Monroeville woman accused of choking her girlfriend, an Etna man charged with strangling a woman with whom he’d argued about “relationship issues,” and a Wilmerding man accused of strangling his girlfriend.
All were charged under a new Pennsylvania strangulation law that makes it illegal to impede someone’s blood flow or breathing by “applying pressure to the throat or neck” or “blocking the nose and mouth of the person.” Often, that means grabbing someone around the neck, but it could also include other actions, such as smothering someone with a pillow.
The ability to charge someone with strangulation in non-fatal cases is important, domestic violence groups says, because choking rarely happens just once and it can often predict other, future danger. “One study has shown the odds of becoming a homicide victim increase by 800 percent for women who had been strangled by their partner,” the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence wrote in a recent report.
More than 100 adults were charged with strangulation in Allegheny County in the first three months the law was in effect. The volume of cases — more than one a day — highlights a common form of domestic violence that can be as dangerous as it is hard to detect.
Supporters of the law, including police officers, prosecutors and domestic violence advocates, applaud it for closing a loophole they felt sometimes made strangling hard to prosecute under existing assault laws.
“Clearly, this law is a huge victory for those of us that are working daily to ensure the safety of women and to prevent domestic violence homicides,” said Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North, a group that works with domestic violence victims.
But some defense attorneys fear the law is overreaching, piles on extra charges and eliminates options for a defense.
“I think not only will this law be challenged, it will fail on appeal,” said defense attorney Phil DiLucente, who represented a man on a strangulation charge last week.
Strangulation can be charged in any case, but most have involved domestic violence.
“It’s an intimate crime,” said Detective Tamara Hawthorne, who works in the Pittsburgh police bureau’s domestic violence unit. “You usually know the person who is doing it. You’re up close already with this. It’s just a fit of rage, of power, control. To me, it’s perfect for domestic violence situations.”
Many local police departments now have a lethality assessment program. When officers respond to domestic violence calls, they separate the victim from the suspect. They then ask the victim a series of questions meant to help gauge how much danger he or she is in and whether the victim should talk to a counselor. The fifth question is, “Has [the suspect] ever tried to choke you?”
“It’s usually not a one-time event,” Detective Hawthorne said. “A lot of times, the victim will not report anything and then, once I get involved, in talking with the victim, this has happened three other times.”
The victims have been men and women. Sometimes, children.
The adult suspects have mostly been men, but five women have been charged.
Police can charge someone with just strangulation, but in many recent case, they have been charging suspects with both assault and strangulation.
Before the strangulation law existed, police typically charged choking as assault. But assault typically involves bodily injury. And bodily injury can be hard to prove in strangulation cases, especially when the perpetrators use their hands rather than an object.
It’s simple science.
Dr. Allan Philp, trauma medical director for Allegheny General Hospital, said strangling someone with a thin object, such as a belt or a telephone cord, would likely leave a mark because a large amount of pressure gets applied over a small area.
But hands are wider. “So if you squeeze something with it, it doesn’t necessarily leave a bruise,” he said.
Sometimes the injuries, though serious, can only be spotted with a CAT scan. Anyone who gets strangled and loses consciousness, experiences difficulty breathing or notices changes in their voice should seek medical care immediately, the doctor said.
“Even without an external mark, you can have internal injuries,” he said, noting that people can die later after being choked.
The new law has a line that says: “The lack of physical injury to a victim shall not be a defense in a prosecution under this section.”
That line has been welcomed by police and some prosecutors.
“Any gray area in the aggravated assault legislation...is now covered,” Detective Hawthorne said. “It’s just better for the victim.”
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney’s office, said it “certainly is a plus” to have another way to charge strangulation and “it is especially helpful that the statute is written so that there does not need to be any sign of physical injury in order to file the charge or to prove the charge at trial stage.”
It’s too early to tell how many cases will result in convictions. Many have not yet had preliminary hearings, at which a district judge decides whether there’s enough evidence to proceed to trial. Strangulation charges have already been dismissed or withdrawn in more than 30 cases — often because the victim did not come to court or would not testify.
Mr. DiLucente, the defense attorney, said he feels the law is “completely unnecessary” because strangulation could be covered as a form of assault. He feels that it is “frankly overreaching” because it limits what types of defenses can be used.
And others agree with some of his points.
Defense attorney Milton Raiford is preparing one strangulation case and said he watched another at a preliminary hearing last week.
“It’s almost like [the attorney] was fighting something that there was no room to fight,” he said. “Because of the way the law is written, you don’t get a chance to look at the facts and the story. Every act of violence, there’s a root cause of it.”
He said he felt the line that prohibits using the absence of injuries as a defense was too broad. Questions about whether a person lost consciousness or how long a defendant’s hands were around a victim’s neck — “Those are questions that I think are relevant to any defense attorney determining whether or not this thing occurred,” Mr. Raiford said.
Some victims also have concerns about the strangulation law.
According to one note on the legislation, possible sentences for strangulation include fines ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 and prison time ranging from two to 20 years, depending on how the charge is graded. The grading depends upon the perpetrator’s relationship with the victim.
One Brookline woman, who appeared in court last week to testify against the father of her children, said she worries about extra jail time, or if he’s convicted prison time. She said her children’s father seems to get more aggressive with each time he’s incarcerated. She said she believes he should be punished but hopes there might be a way to help him other than incarceration.
She said the strangulation petrified her but otherwise “didn’t even affect me.” She testified that her children’s father tossed her down a set of stairs and “started strangling me in front of my kids.” She said she felt “super light-headed and stuff” but didn’t lose consciousness. She spent a few days in the hospital for other injuries and continues to get treatment.
For other victims, the strangulation has a stronger, psychological effect.
Michelle Silverio, 35, of Etna, told police her boyfriend, Richard Cudvat, 29, of Etna, punched her and choked her. He continued to attack her as she ran for help, according to a criminal complaint.
“I knew that I really had to run for my life,” she said. She remembers thinking about her children and how “I’m all they have.”
Ms. Silverio said she had other scuffles with Mr. Cudvat in the past but, “I never took it to the next level” and pursued charges past the initial stages. On Thursday, after Mr. Cudvat waived his hearing on charges of strangulation and other crimes, something felt different.
“I feel good,” she said.
The Current is a new series that uses data to provide new insight about life in Western Pennsylvania. It will appear every Monday — alternating between sports and news. Liz Navratil: email@example.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.
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