TOLEDO, Ohio — Ohio is just one of two states that does not recognize strangulation as a felony, a violent act that’s part of domestic violence cases and is also a precursor to murder.
"It tells me that it hasn’t been a priority," Ohio Sen. Nickie Antonio said.
Antonio is a co-sponsor of S.B. 90, the fourth proposal to create a felony offense for strangulation in Ohio. The bill, introduced in February, would make strangulation a third-degree felony.
Read the full text of S.B. 90 here.
Similar bills were introduced in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Each time, Ohio's legislative session expired before the bills were voted on by both chambers.
"Is it because a majority of the offenses that are put in the domestic violence category, a majority of the victims are women?" Antonio said. "Is it because we just haven’t been able to connect the dots (regarding the dangers)?"
Antonio, a Democrat, and Sen. Stephanie Kunze, a Republican, have received some interesting feedback.
"When we talk about this with our colleagues, they bring up people horsing around, horseplay, and if we make this a felony crime, 'Would be suddenly charging felonies to two guys just fooling around?'" Antonio said.
"I don’t that’s what we’re talking about here," she added
Dr. Bill Smock, the nation's only police surgeon, said, "It is critical to the residents of Ohio that your legislators understand the risks associated with strangulation."
Smock's expert testimony recently helped convict Derek Chauvin of George Floyd's murder.
Smock is also the medical director for the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a program of Alliance for HOPE International, which aims to educate legal and medical professionals about the dangers of strangulation and improve offender accountability.
"It is so easy for one individual to put their hands or arms around another individual and render them unconscious, dead, or somewhere in-between," he said.
Smock said the neck is "extremely delicate." He said it takes only 11 pounds of pressure to block blood flow to the brain. He said the average woman's handshake is 60 to 80 pounds of pressure.
Smock said being strangled for only moments can permanently damage blood vessels, cartilage, vocal cords, and the spinal cord. It takes just seconds longer for strangulation to cause blood clots, brain injuries, and strokes.
In less than a minute, an individual can be killed.
"We have to put into statute that applying pressure to the neck is a dangerous and felonious act that results in injuries to the individual or death," he said.
'The last warning shot'
"Strangulation is really the last warning shot before a homicide," Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Sherrie Miday said. "And we're trying to prevent those homicides."
Since last November, she has overseen the High-Risk Domestic Violence Court, which aims to reduce domestic violence homicides.
So far, a court spokesperson said 70% of the 50 defendants on the docket are accused or convicted stranglers. The use of firearms during a domestic violence offense is the only other qualification.
"One of the catalysts to this docket is we were seeing so many allegations of strangulation," she said.
The Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education analyzed three years of data from Cleveland domestic violence victims who each filled out a risk assessment to determine how likely they are to be murdered by their intimate partners.
Researchers found 90% of the victims determined to be at high-risk for homicide also reported being strangled.
The assessments stem, in part, from a groundbreaking 2008 study, which found domestic violence victims who are strangled are 750% more likely to be murdered.
For example, years before Aisha Fraser was killed by her ex-husband, former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Lance Mason, court records show he strangled her during an incident where he also fractured her left orbital bone.
'A clear connection'
Stranglers don't only murder their intimate partners.
They're tied to both the murders of police officers and mass shootings.
- June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen, Pulse Nightclub shooting, Orlando, Florida
- November 5, 2017: Devin Patrick Kelley, First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas
- August 4, 2019: Connor Betts, (near) Ned Peppers Bar, Dayton, Ohio
"These are generally rage-filled men that have some sort of trauma in their background, usually some sort of childhood trauma," Smock said. "They’re able to take a partner’s life, a police officer’s life, or someone in a mass gathering’s life."
'A disability and a life sentence'
Paula Walters remains perplexed that Ohio does not recognize strangulation as a felony.
“You don’t accidentally put your hands around someone’s throat," she said.
On June 25, 2006, after a night out at The Dock in East Toledo, Paula and her former boyfriend, Bryan Jameson, went back to his house.
They had been drinking. She said he accused of her cheating on him with co-workers they met at the bar. She said he threatened her at gunpoint, hit her, and kicked her.
Then, he strangled her.
“I vividly remember him putting his hands around my throat as he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if I should kiss you or kill you,'" she said.
She woke up in the emergency room. She was alive, but her problems had just begun.
Being strangled left Paula with a permanent brain injury.
“Sometimes, when I’m trying to walk, it feels like the room is moving," she said. “I often feel, I say, drunk on a boat. That’s how I explain it to my doctors.”
Loud noises are so distracting she no longer eats in restaurants. She is often too tired to follow through on plans with friends.
"Every aspect of my work has to be carefully thought out and planned," she said. "Because day to day, what I can and can’t handle changes."
Jameson was charged with felonious assault. He pleaded to aggravated attempted menacing. He was sentenced to probation and a fine.
"And I got a disability and a life sentence," she said.
'We're missing it'
Walters has since started a non-profit to teach people about the risks of strangulation and domestic violence called Standing Courageous, after spending years having her brain injury misdiagnosed.
"If the right people had known the right information...back in 2006, when my case happened, the trajectory of my life would have been different," she said.
Walters also testified before the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019 in support of the previous bill to make strangulation a felony in Ohio. It never received a vote.
“This is happening to so many people," she said. "And we’re missing it.”
There are currently no hearings scheduled in Ohio's Senate Judiciary Committee for SB 90.
Sen. Nathan Manning, the committee's chairman, did not return our calls.
His spokesperson said Manning will likely schedule hearings after budget hearings are complete.