Strangulation is a horrifying reality of domestic violence. It is meant to terrify and control, to make victims fear that life is literally being squeezed out of them, and that any future perceived slight or misstep could bring another potentially lethal attack.

But for a long time, strangulation wasn’t treated as seriously as other forms of domestic violence assaults. It went unmentioned by name in statute, and because it often leaves no obvious signs of trauma, authorities were less likely to pursue charges in a strangulation case than in one involving a weapon.

That changed in 2012, when Maine joined the growing ranks of states that have defined strangulation in statute, and added it to the acts constituting aggravated assault. The subsequent increase in aggravated assault cases is a sign that law enforcement officials are taking the new law, and its potential to save lives, seriously.


It also hints at just how many victims of domestic violence are strangled by their abusers.

A 2011 survey of 151 women receiving services through Maine’s domestic violence resource centers found that 73 percent had been strangled by an intimate partner. Of those strangled, almost 80 percent had been strangled more than once.

Strangulation — defined in the law as the “intentional impeding of the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by applying pressure on the person’s throat or neck” — is usually accompanied by other violent and abusive behaviors. Often, it is part of a sexual assault.

In addition to the physical effects — bruising, trouble breathing and swallowing, possible brain injury — strangulation can have long-lasting psychiatric impacts, making victims fear for their lives if they upset the abuser, or try to leave the relationship.

More than that, strangulation is a leading indicator that domestic abuse will escalate to murder.

In most cases, acts of strangulation do not end until the victim is unconscious or the accuser is worn out.

That requires a level of sustained focus and rage far exceeding the time it takes to pull a trigger, and it is an indication of how far an abuser will go to control his victim. (And the vast majority of abusers who strangle an intimate partner are men.)

The seriousness of strangulation has been recognized for years by victim advocacy groups, but not by the law. Strangulation leaves more subtle evidence than an attack with a weapon or a fist. Without the right training, it can be easy to overlook. Without proper evidence, or a concrete definition of strangulation in the statute, it is hard to prosecute.


Now that strangulation is listed in the law, however, that is changing. With the more serious charge as an option, police and prosecutors have put an added emphasis on strangulation. Investigators are more likely to ask victims if they’ve been strangled, and they are more likely to look for signs of strangulation, such as broken blood vessels or a raspy voice.

The number of aggravated assaults charged under the part of statute mentioning strangulation has jumped from 29 in 2011 to 79 in 2012, when the law took effect halfway through the year. In 2013, the number jumped to 170.

That’s good news, but there’s more to be done.

Victim advocates say Maine law enforcement agencies are receiving the necessary training to identify instances of strangulation and gather the evidence for a charge.

But more training is needed so that police and prosecutors have the evidence to charge abusers.

First responders and emergency room doctors and nurses need to know to ask about strangulation. They need to be aware that related symptoms, such as bruising, can take days to develop, so they have to look instead for other, less obvious signs of strangulation.

Forensic specialists are also needed to explain the signs and symptoms in court, and that will require funding and additional training.

The change in the law has started to pull strangulation out of the shadows. Maine needs to bring it further into the light, so more victims get the help they need.