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Strangulation not a stand-alone felony in SC, advocates call for change

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 5:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 22, 2021 at 7:47 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina has a long list of crimes that are considered stand-alone felonies, including murder and aggravated assault, but strangulation is not on that list.

Some advocates are now calling on South Carolina to join 48 other states in classifying strangulation as a felony of its own.

“It is its own crime,” University of South Carolina Beaufort Professor Deborah Cohan said. “It does not need to be combined or coupled with other things like attempted murder or other aggravated assault.”

In the Lowcountry, strangulation victims could end up at the Charleston campus of the Medical University of South Carolina, where they are treated by forensic nurses like Karen Hughes.

“That person that is strangling the victim is basically telling that victim, ‘I might not kill you now, but I can kill you if I want. I have the power to kill you,’” Hughes said.

Hughes explained that when a person is strangled their injuries often cannot be seen on the outside. She also says that some people confuse strangulation with choking, but they are two different things.

“Choking is when there’s something in the airway and you can’t pass air through the airway,” Hughes said. “Strangulation is not only an airway issue but it’s also a vascular issue, so it’s how the blood flows in and out of the head.”

Some strangulation victims have been known to develop blood clots, which can lead to strokes, according to Hughes.

“It only takes about four minutes to have the carotid artery blocked, and that could render somebody unconscious,” Hughes added. “It only takes 11 pounds of pressure in order to block the carotid artery. A typical man’s handshake is typically 80 to 100 pounds.”

Domestic violence victims who have been strangled in the Lowcountry can find shelter at Hopeful Horizons. Kristin Dubrowski is their chief executive officer.

“For us, we see around 30 percent of clients each year report being strangled by their intimate partner, and we know strangulation is a high indicator of lethality,” Dubrowski said.

Robert Kittle, a spokesperson for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, said, “Strangulation is a felony, but it’s just not a stand-alone offense in South Carolina.”

“There are felony offenses in South Carolina that incorporate strangulation such as aggravated domestic violence, attempted murder, murder, etc.,” he added.

Executive Director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Sara Barber says that even if strangulation becomes a felony of its own, more needs to be done in the state to prevent abuse.

“I think if we’re going to work towards putting it into law, we also need to do an enormous amount of training and outreach to the public,” Barber said. “Medical, law enforcement, and EMS [need to] have a protocol for how they address strangulation, how they treat strangulation, [and] what the follow up protocols might be.”

Ohio is the only other state where strangulation is not currently a stand-alone felony. Several states, including Maryland and Kentucky, passed legislation in recent years that has made strangulation a felony of its own. Cohan feels that South Carolina needs to follow suit.

“My message to lawmakers would be to really take this seriously and to realize it is the greatest precursor to domestic murder, and it also has these ripple effects on the rest of society,” Cohan said.

Strangulation victims are urged to seek medical attention immediately and to look for signs of seizures, trouble swallowing, tongue swelling, or passing out, according to Hughes. There are a number of resources available in the Lowcountry that all domestic violence victims can contact.

Emergency - 911

My Sister’s House 24-Hour Crisis Hotline - 800-273-4673

National Domestic Violence Hotline - 800-799-7233

Hopeful Horizons 24-Hour Support Line - 843-770-1070

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