Ex-prosecutor: Strangulation is a red flag, not 'role-play'

Eileen Naples

Eileen Naples

I prosecuted domestic violence crimes in Brooklyn, New York, for over six years. One of the things that struck me while reading the allegations against Schneiderman was how they seemed to tick off the checklist of lethality factors that prosecutors look for to identify a perpetrator of abuse who may have an enhanced risk of eventually causing the death of an intimate partner.
If a file with the facts as the New Yorker presented them about Schneiderman was handed to any prosecutor with domestic violence experience, the pattern would raise red flag after red flag. Individually, Schneiderman’s alleged efforts to exert control over women’s physical appearance, his attempted strangulation, threats to kill, his drug use and alcohol abuse would be lethality factors. The fact that he allegedly committed each of these behaviors with three separate intimate partners is mind-boggling.
The allegations against Schneiderman — which he denied even when resigning from office — are especially chilling in light of his role in pushing through legislation seeking to protect women from the very kind of potentially lethal behavior he stands accused of. In 2005 Idaho enacted the first assault statute dedicated to strangulation and specified that no injuries are required to prove attempted strangulation. Five years later, Schneiderman, then a New York state senator representing the Upper West Side of Manhattan, introduced a bill in the state Senate that would eventually become New York Penal Law 121.11, which made “Criminal Obstruction of Breathing and Strangulation” prosecutable crimes.
As a young prosecutor I was excited to see the legislature fill a real gap in the law in a way that would positively affect very vulnerable people. In 2012 I was one of the first ADAs in the state to prosecute a felony strangulation at trial. In that case, the defendant was convicted of criminal obstruction of breathing (Schneiderman’s law), two counts of assault, and stalking for trying to strangle his ex-girlfriend in her bathtub while her daughter watched (and continuing to call and write her for months after). In that case, I had a New York medical examiner testify that the victim’s breathlessness and significantly deeper voice on her 911 call was consistent with the symptoms of strangulation.
As strangulation was becoming recognized as an important factor to assess a victim’s safety it was also a frustrating and difficult offense to prosecute. In New York and many states, even the lowest level of misdemeanor assault requires that the victim sustain a physical injury. Most stabbings, beatings, and shootings establish a visible bruise or laceration and the severity of it, and the use of a weapon helps the police and prosecutors determine which assault statutes to apply. There is a reason why “go for the jugular” indicates a particularly depraved brutality, with a very light amount of force applied briefly, the injury can be lasting and dangerous.
An effective and lethal strangulation can happen so quickly that the tissue around the victim’s neck does not retain visible marks, bruises or visible swelling, yet the loss of oxygen can produce a traumatic brain injury. Loss of consciousness can occur in 5-10 seconds. Symptoms of an injury from nonfatal strangulation, like petechiae that present on the skin or eyeballs, a change in voice, difficulty breathing, internal swelling and difficulty swallowing can be proven but require training and resources to detect. Only the best-funded police departments can afford the $2,600 LED cameras necessary to record internal swelling.
In 2008, a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia found that nonfatal strangulation was an important risk factor for homicide of women. We know that if a woman and a man were both strangled by another person, the woman was 10 times more likely to die. The 2008 researchers also found that experiencing a nonfatal strangulation by an intimate partner made a woman six times more likely to be the victim of an attempted murder and seven times more likely to be killed. For the abuser who employs strangulation as one of their methods (as Schneiderman is alleged to) the chance of their act being lethal is five times more likely than abusers who use other forms of abuse.
Abusing multiple partners over time and creating a pattern is uncommon among even the most notorious perpetrators of domestic violence. When it does occur, it’s very alarming. It is much more typical for an abuser to cycle thorough periods of abuse and reconciliation with a single victim.
Michelle Manning Barish, Tanya Selvaratnam and the anonymous women whose story is told in the New Yorker article each described instances where Schneiderman slapped, spit on and strangled them. The fact that Schneiderman was serially engaged in brief relationships that allegedly escalated to such extreme abuse and control in rapid succession would be significant. The fact that his methods and interests remained so consistent with each individual alleged victim shows that his choices to exact psychological taunts and physical violence on women had nothing to do with each individual woman’s behavior or reaction. Whomever he happened to be with would be on the receiving end.
Silence around domestic violence is one of the factors that allows it to persist all over the world. If the allegations against Schneiderman create a public dialogue that speaks up about strangulation, coercive control and patterns of abuse, we can do more to name these behaviors as violent, victimizing and abusive. When more people are educated about the danger of these actions we can call it what it is — not “role-playing” but violence that can lead to the death of a victim.