Victims' Rights Caucus

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State choking laws signal new attention to domestic violence
By John Gramlich, Stateline Staff Writer

When Lara Saffo, a county prosecutor in western New Hampshire, tried to win a felony assault conviction against a man accused of domestic violence last year, she had a more difficult task on her hands than she recognized at the time.

Saffo had obtained evidence allegedly showing that the man had attacked his wife and put his hands around her neck in an attempt to choke her. Under the wording of New Hampshires assault law, however, she needed to convince a jury that he had displayed extreme indifference to the value of human life.

Using that standard, the jury came back divided even though Saffo believes jurors had no doubt that the defendant was trying to choke his wife. The felony charge collapsed, even as three lesser misdemeanor charges stuck.

To Saffo, the case made clear that the New Hampshire legislature needed to fix what she considered a glaring problem in the law. Serious choking incidents could be penalized relatively lightly. I dont think juries should have to struggle with that, says Saffo, who works in Grafton County, near the Vermont border. Somebodys hands are around somebodys throat. (Juries) should know that thats a felony.

At the urging of Saffo and other prosecutors as well as police and victims advocates New Hampshire lawmakers this year passed legislation specifically addressing choking. The bill, which Governor John Lynch signed May 4, makes choking a felony punishable by three-and-a-half to seven years in prison. Previously, most defendants accused of choking their significant others had been punishable only under the extreme indifference standard that complicated Saffos case or by a misdemeanor charge carrying significantly less jail time than a felony.

With the law, which takes effect January 1, New Hampshire joins a number of other states that recently have increased penalties for choking. Studies show that the act is a clear precursor to many domestic violence incidents that turn fatal. Yet in many states, choking still must be prosecuted under broader and often more difficult-to-prove assault laws.

The new laws are part of a wider effort in the states to reduce domestic violence not only by cracking down on perpetrators, as New Hampshire has done, but by helping victims and preventing future crimes.

Delaware Governor Jack Markell this month signed a bill similar to New Hampshires choking legislation, and Illinois, Nevada and Wyoming are among the states that have passed their own choking laws in recent years. In New York, where domestic violence has taken on a higher profile in the wake of a scandal in which an aide to Governor David Paterson was accused of choking his girlfriend, legislation creating a new felony for choking was introduced in March.

The spate of legislative activity along with attempts in other states to prevent and punish domestic violence through a range of other policies comes amid concerns that the sour economy and high levels of joblessness will result in a spike in domestic abuse generally. Studies by the National Institute of Justice have found a strong correlation between economic stress on families and domestic violence. Many womens shelters around the country have reported a recent increase in victims seeking help.

The activity also follows several recent crimes that have brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront of national attention. One of them the murder of a 29-year-old Kentucky woman in 2009 was allegedly carried out by Steve Nunn, the womans ex-fianc and a former state legislator who is also the son of a former governor.

Excellent tool for prosecutors

In New Hampshire, legislators were prodded into action by a crime that had a far worse outcome than the one Saff