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Domestic Violence Assault Cases – Strangulation

Ever since the OJ Simpson verdict (the first one) Maryland Criminal Attorneys and criminal attorneys across the nation have seen a steady increase in the number of domestic violence cases charged as well as substantial increase in the vigor with which these cases are prosecuted. It seems that no prosecutor or judge wants to be asked “why didn’t you do something when you had a chance?” after an alleged domestic violence victim is killed in a subsequent incident.

Not only are prosecutors pursuing these cases with ever increasing vigor, they are also charging many of what used to be considered routine or garden variety misdemeanor cases as first degree felony assaults or even as attempted first degree murder cases. Many of these cases are charged this way based simply on the allegations of the complaining witness are without any medical evidence to corroborate the allegations. An allegation that a victim was choked or strangled can cause a case such as this to be charged as a felony. I have had three such cases in the last year, two are which are still pending.

After the OJ Simpson verdict (the first one) virtually every District Attorney or State’s Attorney’s Office in the country started special domestic violence units to screen and prosecute these cases. Prior to this shift what would typically occur is that a police officer would respond to a domestic incident and either make an arrest or provide the alleged victim with a police report number as well as a document detailing the procedure for filing a criminal complaint. It would in the second instance be up to the alleged victim to go to the court commissioner to file charges. In the absence of very serious injury (which is, of course, what the felony assault statute requires or in the alternative, an attempt to cause serious injury) these cases would be charged in the District Court as misdemeanors.

In many jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, an additional step has been introduced into the process. These misdemeanor cases are sent to the State’s Attorney’s Office and reviewed by the domestic violence unit. Very often this review process results in an increase in the charges from misdemeanors to very serious felony charges, again, often in the absence of any objective injury. I have two such cases pending in Baltimore County. Both cases involve an allegation by the alleged victim that she was choked or strangled. Neither alleged victim had injuries that would typically be associated with a strangulation to corroborate their allegations nor are there any witnesses or other corroborating evidence.

The third case was in Baltimore City Circuit Court last year. All three of these cases have very similar facts. In the Baltimore City case my client and his girlfriend were spending New Year’s Eve in a downtown hotel. They got into an argument over God knows what which escalated into a physical altercation. My client claims that the alleged victim began to strike him in the chest and face and he did nothing other than restrain her from hitting him further by grabbing her arms. The alleged victim claimed that she was repeatedly and violently struck by the victim, slammed into the walls of the hotel room and ultimately strangled to the point of unconsciousness “for at least two minutes” on two occasions. She was taken to the hospital where the doctors examined her and refused to admit her despite her demands that they do so.

The State indicted my client, a practicing physician, on felony first degree assault charges. This charge carries a maximum penalty of 25 years and a conviction would have certainly resulted in the end of my client’s medical career. I hired a female emergency room physicain as an expert witness in the case. She examined the photographs of the alleged victim, the police reports detailing her statement of what happened and the medical records and concluded that the alleged victim’s assault claim was fabricated. She based her opinion on the total lack of any objective injury and explained that when a person is violently strangled in the manner described by the alleged victim, that person will be rendered unconscious within thirty seconds and reach the point of no return (basically brain death) within a minute, so there was simply no way a person could be strangled for “at least two minutes” and live to talk about it. She also explained that when a person is strangled in the manner she described, telltale objective medical evidence is universally present. I will spare the reader the medical details but suffice it to say that the court found this physician’s testimony compelling and found my physician client not guilty of all charges.