‘I could kill you if I wanted to’: Strangulation indicates domestic violence victims 7.5 times more likely to be killed

Middle TN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Gabby Petito’s family wants part of her legacy to be helping victims of domestic violence by donating funds from her newly created foundation towards awareness, education and prevention strategies, according to its website. This comes as police continue looking for her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, who is the only person of interest in the case. A coroner revealed Petito was strangled to death, prompting conversations about strangulations among domestic violence victims.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for the homicide of women.

“After one incident of a non-lethal strangulation, the victim is 7.5 times more likely to be killed by that abuser,” said Davidson County Assistant District Attorney Christina Johnson. “This is an extraordinarily serious act that occurs far too frequently.”

Johnson leads the domestic violence unit for the DA’s office, which is their largest team and has people who specialize in these types of cases, including strangulations. She says 54% of domestic violence victims report they were previously strangled by their partners.

“Strangulation is a very intimate, violent act. The majority of strangulations occur between people who are married or in a serious dating relationship,” said Johnson. “When one puts their hands around somebody’s neck or suffocates them, this is an act of power and control trying to let the victim know, I could kill you if I wanted to.”

Johnson added that oftentimes strangulation victims don’t take the attack seriously.

“After strangulation, only 3% of victims are actually seeking medical treatment,” said Johnson. “I think the reason why is oftentimes when you see somebody who’s been hit, they might have bruises, they might have scarring. When somebody has been strangled, oftentimes those are internal injuries that we’re not seeing. So (victims will think) “I guess it wasn’t too bad because I didn’t have any bruises. I guess it wasn’t too bad because nobody can see what happened, it only lasted a matter of seconds.”

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However, data from strangulations show it can only take seconds to lose consciousness. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it’s possible to experience strangulation and show no symptoms at first but die weeks later because of brain damage due to lack of oxygen and other internal injuries.

Johnson says their team has eight assistant district attorneys, seven victim-witness coordinators, and three prosecution support staff making it the largest unit at the DA’s office.

“We have assistant district attorneys who are specifically trained in domestic violence, specifically trained in strangulation and understanding, you’re not going to see the injury, sometimes,” said Johnson. “Sometimes this is an attack that happens in a matter of seconds. But it is so serious, it is extraordinarily serious, and there is a high lethality rate once someone has been strangled.”

She said domestic violence cases are some of the most difficult to prosecute. One of the biggest challenges is victims being willing to participate. Johnson encouraged victims to document their experiences and even if they don’t have bruises to take a picture of, listen to their bodies because their injuries could be internal.

“Communicate, don’t hide. Victims have been hiding for too long. They’ve been in the shadows forever. They’ve had somebody that tells them that they love them, that they don’t have a voice, that they don’t deserve to have a voice,” she said. “I want them to know that they do.”

Those are the voices she tries to elevate during her job.

“It’s happening in your place of worship. It’s happening at your children’s school, with friends, with family with people that you are close to. And we have to be open to asking people about their personal business if they need help,” she said. “I don’t get frustrated because this is my passion. This is what I do. I want to help people and have understood every single dynamic that might be happening.”

A reminder that help is available 24-7 by calling YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee Crisis Support Hotline at 1-800-334-4628 or TEXT 615-983-5170. 

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