Local News

Strangulation Often Considered Misdemeanor Assault

Posted November 21, 2002 9:59 a.m. EST

— If a person tries to kill someone with a weapon, it is considered attempted murder, but what if the person uses his or her hands, puts them around someone's neck, and tries to keep them from breathing? Under the law, that is considered simple assault. The problems are compounded by the fact that signs of strangulation are not always obvious, but some victim advocates are trying to change that.

When Thelma Cole visits the Family Violence Center in Chatham County, she goes to chat with friends, but there was a time when she desperately needed their help.

"I did think I was going to die. It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me," she said.

In August 2001, Cole said she was strangled by a boyfriend. He was charged with assault on a female, which is a misdemeanor and received no jail time.

"You can let him get away with it and then you'll be trying him for my murder later," Cole said.

In courthouses in North Carolina and across the country, strangulation is still treated as a misdemeanor assault and not as attempted murder even though it is considered a serious crime. Studies show a person can lose consciousness in almost 10 seconds and die in about four to five minutes.

After she was attacked, Cole had hemorraging in her eyes and behind her ears, but strangulation injuries are not always visible. When Cary police investigated the strangulation death of Heather Domenie, natural causes was reported as the cause. It was not until the next day that a doctor noticed signs of strangulation. Her fiance, Ian Campbell was then charged with murder.

Victim advocates like Kit Gruelle believe police and doctors need more training to see those kinds of subtle signs.

"Once people are trained and once they understand what to look for, I think we're going to see a dramatic change in how these cases are thought of across the state of North Carolina," she said.

When Cole was attacked, she lost consciousness twice and then faked her death so that her attacker would leave. Her injuries did not start to become visible until the next day, which officials claim is not uncommon in those kinds of cases.