Md. Needs a Felony Strangulation Law, Advocates and Lawmakers Argue

Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy (D) speaks in favor of a bill that would establish a felony strangulation law in Maryland. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Stella Hargrove’s voice quavered and tears welled in her eyes as she recalled the horror of being strangled at the hands of her ex-husband.

Hargrove said she was cleaning house when she was attacked and rendered unconscious.

“I want you to understand that when their hands are around your neck, they’ve already taken your power. They’ve already taken your fight and the only thing that you can do is put your hands on their hands,” Hargrove cried on Tuesday. “…They hold your neck and your body up against the wall until you faint. And then you find yourself waking up on the floor and not knowing what happened. Finding that you have soiled your clothes, not understanding how long you’ve been there.”

Hargrove would tell her story multiple times in the House Office Building on Tuesday, as she joined with lawmakers and advocates pushing for Maryland to establish a felony strangulation law.

Hargrove said she wanted lawmakers to understand what it feels like to be strangled, “to not know whether you’re going to wake up.”

Stella Hargrove, a domestic violence survivor, chokes back tears in the House Office Building on Tuesday after telling her story of abuse, including strangulation, at the hands of her ex-husband. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Under current Maryland law, strangulation can be charged as a first-degree assault ― which says “a person may not intentionally cause or attempt to cause serious physical injury” with loss of bodily functions or a substantial risk of death ― but prosecutors say the cases are difficult to prove in court.

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy (D) said first-degree assault charges are often reduced to second-degree assault convictions because strangulation often does not leave physical injury on a victim’s body to introduce as evidence and internal injuries can be difficult to document or may not manifest until days, weeks or months after an assault.

If intentional strangulation were specified in the first-degree assault law, cases could be easier to prove to juries, Braveboy said.

Advocates said the push for a felony statute is also critical because of the lethality attached to strangulation assaults. A victim of strangulation at the hands of a partner is seven times more likely to end up as a homicide victim of that partner in the future, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.

“First-degree assault is an appropriate classification for a crime that is the leading indicator of femicide,” Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) said Tuesday.

At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) questioned why Maryland’s first-degree assault statute wasn’t sufficient for strangulation cases.

Lisae Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault said the academic debate about whether the definitions in current law include strangulation is what has kept Maryland law from moving forward, while lawmakers could instead simply add clarifying language to the statute.

“Although it might be correct, from an academic point of view, that suffocation and strangulation are serious bodily injuries, it’s just not working. We are failing victims of domestic violence, we are failing other people who have been strangled,” Jordan said.

But Melanie Shapiro with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender disagreed that the bill was needed.

“People have in fact been found guilty of assault in the first degree as a result of strangulation or choking or suffocation,” Shapiro said.

Ricardo Flores, director of government relations for the Office of the Public Defender, said Maryland is unusual in having just two degrees of assault, and in allowing a 10-year prison sentence for misdemeanor charges, unlike some of the states that have carved out specific felony strangulation laws.

Melissa Hoppmeyer, chief of the Family Violence and Special Victims Unit at the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office noted that the severity of strangulation is recognized elsewhere in Maryland’s criminal law, including in rape cases, where it is codified as an aggravating factor.

And if stranglers were met with harsher penalties in assault cases, Hoppmeyer said her office might handle fewer cases of domestic violence homicides.

“Some of those perpetrators would have been behind bars,” she said.

Since 2012, several versions of the bill have been introduced, but failed to pass. In 2017, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a hearing on a similar bill, but took no further action.

Lee and Dels. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick) and Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard) are leading bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers pushing for the legislation in both chambers this year. Majorities of the membership of House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees are among the cosponsors.

Braveboy expressed hope that the measure will pass this year.

“It’s the first time it’s been introduced by these individuals with the changes that have been made in leadership that I think are more victim-centric and focused. And I believe that this is the year that we finally get over that hurdle,” Braveboy said.

Maryland is one of only three states that don’t have a felony strangulation statute.

“I think it’s a sad note that we are here trying to become the 48th state in the union to address this issue appropriately,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D) said in Annapolis on Tuesday. “…The law as it exists does not really assist us in adequately protecting women. This bill does that.”

The bill will be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.

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