(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Whitney Bryen of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)
On a June night last year, an argument broke out at an Atoka County home.
A woman’s teenage daughter was playing loud music, and her husband asked her to tell the daughter to turn the music off. The argument escalated, and the woman said her husband “put both hands around her neck and choked her” so that “she felt her body being lifted off of the ground by her neck,” a court affidavit said.
At the Atoka County Sheriff’s Office later, a deputy saw marks on the woman’s throat suggesting a righthand grip with thumb and finger marks. The 46-year-old woman told officers she had an existing neck injury, with fused vertebrae, and her husband was aware of this.
But she refused to press charges. And the case was dropped.
Strangulation of women is a persistent and increasingly reported form of violence in Oklahoma, with hundreds of cases reported annually, criminal justice system officials say. It is not always fatal, but it is terrifying and can cause long-term injuries and trauma. It also has been shown by researchers to be a precursor to homicide, a signal that this type of domestic violence often leads to a lethal assault.
Domestic Violence Help
YWCA, Oklahoma City: 800-522-7233
Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Tulsa: 918-743-5763
Women’s Resource Center, Norman: 405-701-5540
In Oklahoma, 80 percent of women who were abused by their partner from 2009 to 2013 had been strangled during that relationship, a lethality assessment study in seven Oklahoma police jurisdictions found. Forty percent reported multiple strangulations. More than two-thirds of the men were not arrested in the incidents, according to the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Justice.
Strangulation victims are 750 percent more likely to be killed than victims who have never been strangled, according to The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a California-based program.
In its most recent report, Oklahoma’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board found that in many of intimate-partner homicides reviewed by the group over the past decade, there was a history of nonfatal strangulation.
Jacqueline Steyn, the board’s program manager, said the number of cases varied year to year, but the trend was glaring. As a result, the board recommended lethality risk and strangulation training for everyone who supports domestic violence victims, including judges, health care workers and law enforcement officers.
In the Violence Policy Center’s most recent report, Oklahoma ranked 11th in the nation in the rate of homicides committed by men against women. State and national experts say many of these deaths could have been prevented if abusers were held more accountable for nonfatal strangulations.
‘Power and control’
An Oklahoma man’s strangulation of a woman and subsequent murder of another reflect the findings that strangulation can be a red flag for homicide.
In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2009, police were called to a domestic dispute in Oklahoma City. Stephen Lewis, 42, had strangled his wife of two years while their 3-year-old daughter watched, according to a court affidavit. When the girl asked, “Daddy, why are you doing that to mommy?”, Lewis answered, “Because she deserves it,” according to the affidavit. He refused to let his wife and children leave the house. His wife was able to call authorities after Lewis fell asleep.
Lewis pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery, domestic abuse by strangulation and kidnapping a child. He served eight months in prison before being released on probation.
According to the Department of Corrections, Lewis was still on probation for the kidnapping when he beat his girlfriend, Julian Price, to death in December 2016. A witness reported seeing Lewis choke Price outside of the house before she died. In March this year, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder, and sentencing is scheduled for June 10.
Candida Manion, director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said abusers often turn to strangulation over time as their violence becomes more severe.
It may begin with emotional abuse or yelling, then graduate to throwing something or punching a wall. The abuser may later begin hitting or kicking a victim and, at some point, he puts his hands around her neck.
“It’s the ultimate form of power and control,” said Jessica Collett, a nurse at a domestic violence service center in Norman. “They’re literally holding someone’s life in their hands.”
It takes five seconds to render someone unconscious. Seizures can occur in 11 seconds and death can occur in just over a minute.
“Unfortunately, we will have to see some horrible deaths for people to wake up and address this issue,” Manion said.
A nonviolent crime
Many of the state’s victim advocates support tougher laws that provide harsher punishments for domestic abusers, saying this will increase accountability.
Domestic assault by strangulation is a felony in Oklahoma, but along with other domestic violence crimes, it is not designated as a violent offense under state law. Domestic violence crimes also aren’t included in the list of crimes that require offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would have added domestic assault charges, such as strangulation, to both lists. But HB 1056 died after failing to make it out of committee by deadline in late March. Advocates noted this was three weeks after a Tulsa man was arrested in connection with his wife’s strangulation death.
Manion said by not supporting the bill, lawmakers are sending a message that Oklahoma doesn’t take domestic violence seriously.
“We have a sexism problem in our state, and it’s affecting how we deal with domestic violence,” Manion said. “Many still have the thought process that it’s a family matter or ‘she asked for it.’”
Assistant District Attorney Jacobi Whatley, who prosecutes Cleveland County’s felony domestic violence cases, said last year about three-fourths of her cases involved strangulation.
Whatley supports tougher sentences, noting that animal cruelty, car theft and breaking into an unoccupied house or business carry more prison time than domestic violence by strangulation.
Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) was the only member of the House to vote against HB 1056. Lowe, a criminal defense attorney, said longer sentences would further burden the state’s already overcrowded prisons and conflict with criminal justice reform efforts.
Lowe said sufficient punishment is already in place for those found guilty of domestic violence by strangulation, which carries a maximum three-year sentence and/or a fine of up to $3,000, plus one year of mandatory batterer intervention classes.
Prosecutors do have discretion in many domestic violence cases. They can file multiple charges, some of which carry more severe punishments than domestic violence, in an effort to increase prison time.
Recognizing the injuries
Strangulation is one of the most difficult charges to prove because about half of victims have no visible injuries, Whatley said. Even visible injuries can easily be overlooked by police and health-care providers who lack specialized training.
Collett has seen hundreds of victims at the Women’s Resource Center in Norman and is certified in examining, documenting and treating cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. Visible injuries can include tiny red circles in the eyes or on the scalp as well as bruising, scratches, swelling or redness around the neck. Shortness of breath, dizziness, strained voice, ringing in the ears and memory loss are also common.
Many victims do not seek medical attention after strangulation because they assume they’re fine, Collett said. But they may still have internal or long-term injury. Victims are susceptible to traumatic brain damage, hemorrhaging or stroke years or decades after strangulation. She encourages all of her patients to visit a hospital for imaging.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety are also common among victims.
Lt. Dustin Motley of Oklahoma City Police Department’s domestic violence unit said about one-quarter of their reported incidents involve strangulation and a “vast majority” of victims have experienced strangulation at some point.
A week before her first wedding anniversary, Brittney, whose last name is not being used for her protection, awoke on the floor of the nursery of her Oklahoma City home. She was six-months pregnant, was confused and in excruciating pain.
“I remember that he got on top of me and was straddling me and squeezing my neck, strangling me,” Brittney said. “The next thing I remember was waking up in his arms and he was crying and wiping blood off of me.”
Brittney’s husband had strangled her until she blacked out and then punched her twice in the face while she was unconscious, leaving her with bone fractures and black eyes. Brittney said he had started to strangle her once before but had stopped.
Her husband pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery with great bodily injury and domestic assault and battery by strangulation. He was sentenced to 10 years — six years in prison and four years of probation. Brittney said he will likely be released in less than two years for good behavior and must take classes on parenting and anger management. She is hoping he will change.
Actions to take
Nonfatal strangulation is often perpetrated by a man victimizing a woman who is smaller and physically weaker, but that doesn’t mean victims are helpless.
Jeanelle Hebert, an instructor of defensive tactics at the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, said getting an abuser’s hands off of your neck should be top priority for women.
“You do that by raising your arm high in air, turn your body to the side and then drop your arm down using your elbow to break the hold,” Hebert said. “This works well because the power is coming from your hips and your core.”Hebert said breaking away from strangulation is a challenging feat, often because the victim has suffered other wounds from the abuser. But it is doable.
Reporting strangulation is also critical, officials say.
From 2017 to 2018, Tulsa Police Department saw a 42 percent increase in strangulation reports, to 700, and doubled the number of arrests, to 289, after it launched a domestic strangulation initiative last year.
Sgt. Clay Asbill, of the department’s family violence unit, spearheaded a program that trains officers about strangulation and connects victims to service providers.
“Law enforcement hasn’t taken it as seriously as we should have,” Asbill said. “To me, it’s as serious as assault with a deadly weapon.”
Asbill said eight domestic homicides have occurred in Tulsa so far this year. One involved a fatal strangulation, and in at least one other there was a history of nonfatal strangulation.
Oklahoma City police saw a 46 percent increase in strangulation reports over the same period, to 528 in 2018, as well as a 37 percent increase in arrests for strangulation, 261. Oklahoma City has reported no domestic violence-related homicides so far in 2019.
Shelley Battles-Reichle, executive director of the Family Crisis Center in Ada, believes strangulation is becoming more common. She attributes some of that to increased awareness, but said the bigger factor is that abusers are getting away with it.
“If someone is willing to put their hands around your neck and cut off your blood supply and oxygen, they’re willing to kill you,” Battles-Reichle said. “The abuser has the victim’s life in their hands at that point and they don’t have any fear of repercussion.”