Judges, police, prosecutors, and public defenders from Fairfax County rated the county’s handling of strangulation cases, which officials claim are frequently signs of domestic violence, in a posh conference room at the Capital One Tower in Tysons. Half of the audience gave Fairfax a “C,” while the other half believed it deserved a “D.”
According to information provided by the police, strangling or intentionally exerting pressure on a person’s neck was charged in 217 cases in Fairfax County in 2022.
Data indicates 134 instances in which someone was accused of the offense the year prior, an increase of 83 points. But, despite an increase in arrests, fewer cases are being prosecuted and found guilty, to the authorities.
“We have had a significant rise in charges of strangulation, not only in Fairfax County but in the Commonwealth of Virginia and across the nation,” said Gayl Carr, a judge in the county’s juvenile and domestic relations court. “But we don’t see a lot of prosecutions or convictions.”
Carr, frustrated by the rise in accusations in the county without commensurate convictions, was one of the 100 persons who convened in February for an entire day of training on preventing strangulation.
Instances of strangulation cases being withdrawn or ending with defendants pleading guilty to less severe crimes are frequent, according to officials who declined to disclose data on how many charges filed since 2021 had resulted in a trial or a criminal conviction.
There are several causes. Police Chief Kevin Davis stated that how his officers gather evidence needs improvement. Steve Descano, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Fairfax County, a Democrat, claimed that victims frequently stop cooperating with investigators as time passes between an arrest and a trial and when the criminals and victims mend fences.
“There’s family, there’s history, there’s economics — there are a whole bunch of things that are wrapped up in these types of cases,” Descano said. “It’s one of the reasons why these types of cases have the lowest percentage of victims who are willing to continue on with the case at trial.”
Leaders spent the day looking into instances when persons who claimed they had been strangled were denied justice in the criminal justice system, from the 911 dispatch through the trial. Speakers at the conference pleaded with policymakers to take strangulation seriously since it can have fatal implications because it prevents air and blood flow to the brain.
“We need to have that understanding of what strangulation means — the medical part and the legal part — so that we protect public safety,” said Carr, who helped organize the event.
In Virginia, strangulation was made into a distinct crime more than ten years ago, setting it apart from other attacks.
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The symposium’s hosts, Casey Gwinn and Gael Strack of Alliance for Hope International expressed their support for the stand-alone law, which is present in all states except South Carolina and Washington, D.C. Strack, however, claimed that it was usual for detectives to overlook physical indicators of the crime, such as petechiae or drooping eyelids, which might corroborate the felony accusation.
“If a victim doesn’t get medical attention, she’s not going to get a good clinical assessment or good documentation that prosecutors can use,” Strack said.
According to authorities, strangulation is a common aspect of domestic violence, and men are disproportionately suspected of carrying out such assaults. According to police records, 362 of the 378 cases investigated by police between January 2021 and February 2023 involved male attackers, or nearly 96 percent of the crimes.
Authorities did not disclose statistics on strangulation survivors, but Strack and Gwinn noted that the majority were female, which they claimed indicated a national trend.
According to Saly Fayez, head of victims services in Fairfax, victims may hesitate to report their attackers for fear of revenge. “If pursuing charges would put the victim in further harm, we do have to weigh heavily on that,” Fayez said.
Before working in advocacy, Gwinn served as San Diego’s city attorney. He claimed prosecutors who chose not to pursue a case risked severe repercussions. He and Strack discussed studies with participants regarding the risks of strangling, such as one that revealed survivors of strangulation were roughly 7.5 times more likely to become homicide victims later.
Descano, the prosecutor for Fairfax, claimed that statistics show his office frequently requests that those charged with strangulation remain in jail pending trial, but courts don’t always accept the requests. Prosecutors asked suspects to be held in 90 of the 112 bond hearings for strangulation instances that his agency recorded in 2022. According to Descano’s data, judges granted the requests in 43 sessions.
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Officials vexed by rising strangulation cases in Fairfax County https://t.co/Kew0yj9ZGb
— Post Crime (@postcrime) March 4, 2023
Leslie Morgan Steiner, a survivor of domestic abuse who wrote a book about the abuse, addressed the audience at the symposium. She divulged personal information about her previous marriage, in which she had been battered and nearly strangled, but no charges had ever been filed because of the abuse.
Others started to question her when she finished telling her story. How can law enforcement warn a victim that they are in danger while considering that the victim might have complex opinions about the person being accused? Was the detective’s question to Steiner? Steiner responded, “I wouldn’t lie to you; I would’ve recanted,” when another individual questioned whether she would have testified against her husband while he abused her.
Gwinn asserted that prosecutors should continue with cases even if victims cease cooperating if the evidence supports it.
“I am stunned at the ways that [prosecutors] are now saying the victim should decide whether or not the accused gets held accountable,” Gwinn said of cases he has seen across the United States. “I think prosecution is an awareness raising strategy. I think prosecution is also a consequence strategy.”
Dawn Butorac, the county’s public defender, said some of the attorneys from her office who attended the symposium took issue with the event because it implied guilt even in cases where no one was found guilty.
“From our perspective, it was an incredibly unbalanced and biased presentation,” she said. “It was sponsored by the court, but it was clearly focused on prosecution. Inviting public defenders doesn’t change that.”
According to police chief Davis, the county could do better for women who survived being strangled.
“There has been a lot of talk in recent years, and rightly so, that people accused of crimes need second chances. I believe in that for nonviolent offenders,” Davis said. “But victims need second chances. We’re in a position to better observe, document and hold people accountable for committing this felony assault by strangulation so then victims can get that second chance.”