Last week, John Michael Farren, a former White House lawyer, stood in a Stamford, Conn., courtroom and pleaded not guilty to a series of charges related to an alleged attack on his wife. Among them: attempted murder, first-degree assault and first-degree strangulation.
There is nothing novel about the first two. But the strangulation charge is a relatively new one in Connecticut and across the country, one created specifically to deal with the epidemic of domestic violence.
It's no secret to those who help battered women that spouses often, quite literally, go for the throat during domestic disputes. Still, unless someone sustained significant injuries, authorities until recently didn't have a big choice of charges. Abusive partners were usually charged with misdemeanor assault or breach of peace, and then sent to take classes as part of a Family Violence Education Program.
Then, about a decade ago, a San Diego prosecutor investigated the deaths of two teenage women murdered in domestic incidents. She uncovered evidence that the victims had been strangled in earlier incidents and that if the law took such attacks more seriously, perhaps the deaths could have been prevented.
"It sends the wrong message to the defendant," said Gael Strack, the former San Diego prosecutor and the nation's leading expert in strangulation. "I can choke you close to death and nobody's going to do anything about it."
Since then, Strack has devoted her career to spreading the word about the link between strangulation and domestic violence injuries and deaths. In 2007, Connecticut became the 17th state to enact such a law, making it part of a larger anti-domestic violence bill. There are 27 states with some sort of strangulation statute.
Officials in Minnesota, one of the first states to have a separate strangulation crime, released a report last year that credited the law with a drop in the number of domestic violence homicides. Strack said Minnesota officials believe they have put some abusive partners in prison on strangulation charges before they could kill.
The Connecticut law defines strangulation as restraining another person by the neck or throat with the intent to impede breathing or to restrict blood circulation. First-degree and second-degree strangulation are felonies, punishable by up to 10 and five years in prison, respectively. Third-degree strangulation is a misdemeanor, and carries a maximum sentence of one year.
"Someone's charged with strangulation, it gets peoples attention in court, there's no doubt about that," said Kevin Dunn, a senior assistant state's attorney in Bridgeport, Conn., who works exclusively on domestic violence cases.
"Not many people are saying can I plead guilty to strangulation," added Dunn. "The strangulation just doesn't sound good; by its very definition it's a red flag."
'MATTER OF SECONDS'
Since the law was enacted, according to statistics compiled by the state Judicial Branch, 52 people have been charged with first-degree strangulation. Three of them were found guilty, 31 of the cases are still pending. There have been 802 arrests for second-degree strangulation; 112 people have been found guilty and half the cases are still pending.
"These are very serious cases by their definition," said Dunn. "They could've killed the person in a matter of seconds. Luckily, most people don't die but they could die."
None of the Connecticut cases have drawn more attention than the one involving John Michael Farren. The former White House counsel to former President George W. Bush allegedly beat his wife at their home in New Canaan earlier this month with a flashlight, pulled strands of hair out of her head and put his hands around her neck.
Farren's wife, also a lawyer, had served John Michael Farren with divorce papers two days earlier. Mary Farren drifted in and out of consciousness during and after the attack and suffered facial fractures, according to authorities.
Strack, now the chief executive officer for the National Family Justice Center Alliance in California, explained that light pressure on the carotid arteries and veins in the neck for as little as 10 seconds can cause unconsciousness. If the trachea is closed off, brain death can occur in as little as four or five minutes.
Other victims can be permanently harmed by the oxygen deprivation and the pressure that builds up on the brain when blood can't escape due to the compression of veins. Strack said studies indicate that strangulation attacks can have long-term impact on victims' abilities to concentrate on work and to "multi-task."
Patricia Froehlich, the Windham County state's attorney, said a prosecutor in her office, Matthew Crockett, who is now on military leave, "was frustrated because we didn't have an assault charge that fit the dynamics of a strangulation offense. He did a great deal of research and saw other states have specific strangulation statutes."
Crockett approached others, including Dunn, in 2005 but the idea gained little traction with lawmakers. Dunn acknowledged that even some prosecutors questioned the need for the law and public defenders were also skeptical. He said they thought a simple assault charge was sufficient.
Eventually, a committee was formed that consisted of prosecutors, police, domestic violence groups and a public defender who all worked on the wording of the new strangulation statute. (Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, an attorney with the Office of the Chief Public Defender, helped draft the law. She did not return calls for this article.)
Dunn said the public defenders were concerned about a defendant being charged for both assault and strangulation for the same attack. He said the sides agreed that prosecutors could charge for both crimes but would not push for convictions for both.
In 2007, the measure finally met with success in the legislature, where it was championed by state Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen. "The evidence was quite overwhelming that people engaged in this behavior were more likely than others to re-offend and commit some heinous acts," he said.
One key to enforcing the law is training police on what to look for when they respond to domestic disputes. Both Strack, on a national level and Dunn, in Connecticut, have performed such training. They tell authorities to be on the lookout for petechiae, or pinpoint-like red spots that are the results of ruptured small blood vessels. These spots can be found around the eyes or other parts of the face. Other symptoms include a raspy voice, difficulty breathing, trouble swallowing, dizziness, fainting, headache, and loss of bowel control.
Dunn says it's well worth it to provide such training. "I think it's a good statute. I think it's changed the way we prosecute these cases," said Dunn, who heads Bridgeport's domestic violence docket. Abusive spouses "can't just roll in and say I want the Family Violence Education Program."