Nonfatal Strangulation as Part of Domestic Violence: A Review of Research

Pritchard, A. J., Reckdenwald, A., & Nordham, C. (2017).
Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(4), 407 – 424.
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Expanded Abstract: 

Over the past two decades, there has been increasing attention paid to the strangulation that occurs in the context of domestic violence cases. While strangulation was previously thought of primarily as a mode of homicide, nonfatal incidents of strangulation in the context of domestic violence has only recently received more attention. When strangulation occurs in the context of domestic violence, it is a direct demonstration of power and control an offender has over another individual’s life or death. The act of strangulation demonstrates to a victim that the offender can end their life whenever he or she chooses (Nemeth, Bonomi, Lee, & Ludwin, 2012; Thomas, Joshi, & Sorenson, 2014). As strangulation is typically accompanied by death threats, gasping for breath, loss of consciousness, and can result in a delayed death, the incidence of strangulation is a critical concern for personnel who respond medically and legally to domestic violence.

This article reviews research around the issue of nonfatal strangulation in cases of domestic violence. In the mid-1990s, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office began a systematic study of attempted strangulation among 300 domestic violence cases, becoming one of the first systematic research studies to specifically examine the prevalence of attempted strangulation as a form of injury associated with ongoing domestic violence. Prior to this time, most of the research into strangulation was conducted postmortem, and little was known about the injuries and signs of attempted strangulation among surviving victims.

One key study was reported by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office (Strack, McClane, & Hawley, 2001). In that study, 89% of the strangulation victims had suffered from a history of domestic violence, and yet in 50% of the cases there were no visible injuries related to the strangulation assault Other domestic violence experts found similarly striking results when strangulation was considered in the context of their work. Homicide researchers, for instance, found that a prior history of strangulation was a serious risk factor in domestic violence-related femicide (Campbell, Glass, Sharps, Laughon, & Bloom, 2007; Glass et al., 2008). The risk of homicide was found to be 7.48 times higher for women who had experienced strangulation (Glass et al., 2008). Over the same period, fatality review teams have played a key role in developing statutes and evidence that treat strangulation as a separate crime from assault and as infliction of serious injury or death (Douglas & Fitzgerald, 2014).

This article reviews the research that has since been conducted around strangulation in domestic violence cases, highlighting topics that are more-or-less developed in the areas of criminology, forensic science, law, and medicine, and makes recommendations for future research and practice.

(The expanded abstract is excerpted and adapted from the article cited above)