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Prosecutorial response to nonfatal strangulation in domestic violence cases

Reckdenwald, A., King, D.J., & Pritchard, A.J. (2020)

Violence and Victims, 35(2), 160 – 175


Recent research has pointed to the need for systematic law enforcement training on domestic violence when nonfatal strangulation is involved to improve evidence-based prosecution of these potentially deadly assaults; however, virtually no research has examined the legal response to nonfatal strangulation since many states have made it a separate criminal felony. The current exploratory study examines filing, charging, and adjudication decisions of nonfatal strangulation cases over a 3-year period based on evidence documentation in law enforcement reports to explore how these cases are handled by the criminal justice system in Brevard County, Florida. Results support previous research showing the importance of training police officers and other personnel as insufficient evidence may be one possible factor limiting the prosecutors’ ability to successfully prosecute domestic violence strangulation offenders to the highest extent available under the law. Implications spread across multiple disciplines.

Expanded Abstract:

Nonfatal strangulation is now documented as a frequent form of violence used in domestic relationships (Smith, Mills, & Taliaferro, 2001; Strack, McClane, & Hawley, 2001; Taliaferro, Mills, & Walker, 2001). Research has shown that 89% of nonfatal strangulation cases that came to the attention of law enforcement had a history of domestic violence (Strack et al., 2001). Victim reports also indicate how common strangulation is in abusive relationships, with 68% of abused women reporting experiencing nonfatal strangulation and surviving an average of 5.3 strangulation attempts (Wilbur et al., 2001). Other research has underscored long-term outcomes associated with experiencing strangulation multiple times, suggesting an increased frequency of adverse effects that affect victims’ physical and mental health (Smith et al., 2001).

In addition to a common co-occurrence, research shows that non-fatal strangulation is an important predictor for lethal violence in the relationship in future, with an estimated risk of homicide seven and a half times higher for women who have experienced strangulation in the past (Glass et al., 2008). Due to the heightened awareness of the lethality risk of nonfatal strangulation, many states across the United States including Florida, have passed specialized laws in the last decade making nonfatal strangulation a separate criminal felony (Pritchard, Reckdenwald, & Nordham, 2017).

The current study examines data from official law enforcement domestic violence records and public court records in Brevard County, Florida as part of a partnership with the County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office (SAO). Along with prior examinations showing inadequacies in evidence collection by law enforcement (Pritchard et al., 2018), 911 dispatch (Reckdenwald et al., 2017), and medical personnel (McClane et al., 2001), research has argued that poor training of first responders on how to identify and document signs and symptoms of nonfatal strangulation creates a challenge prosecuting these cases (Strack et al., 2001). This exploratory study examines filing, charging, and adjudication decisions to consider the role that evidence collection by law enforcement may play in these decisions in the County prior to specialized strangulation training for law enforcement. This study considers one piece in the chain of evidence collection—what is documented in the police report. It shows the importance of training first responders. Law enforcement plays an essential role in recognizing strangulation, conveying the seriousness of strangulation to victims, providing corroborating evidence for eventual prosecution, and referring identified victims to medical exams where more evidence can be collected for prosecution. Future research should continue to examine factors that may influence the legal response toward nonfatal strangulation and evaluate coordinated efforts to improve the response across multiple agencies in the criminal justice process.