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Felony status sought for strangulation tries

By the time the late-night argument ended, Jacqi Galles had been hoisted off the ground in a tight stranglehold and choked so vigorously that she says she nearly passed out. She fled her home and called the police on her then-boyfriend, who was charged with a misdemeanor and spared a prison sentence after pleading guilty.

Moved by that case and others like it, South Dakota this year joined a growing list of states that have made nonfatal choking a felony crime, which is more serious and carries a stiffer penalty. Anti-domestic-violence groups leading the effort say the laws are intended to not only secure tougher punishments for domestic abusers but also to promote awareness of a crime they say often precedes homicide -- yet is chronically underprosecuted.

"For decades, we've simply lumped it into assault or battery or causing injury to another," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. "But there's a heightened awareness that this is something different. This is far more serious."

Attempted strangulation cases have long vexed police and prosecutors seeking stiff penalties for attacks. The act can leave victims close to death, but unlike blows that produce a black eye or broken nose, it generally leaves few, if any, external signs of injury needed to prove a felony assault charge. An attempted murder charge is also hard to sustain in cases where suspects intend to frighten rather than kill.

As a result, advocates say, suffocation cases have historically been handled as misdemeanors that don't reflect the act's severity or carry meaningful punishment.

About 30 states have passed laws, most in the past decade, making it a felony under certain conditions to knowingly impede someone's breathing. California, Iowa, South Dakota and Tennessee are among recent states to act, and Virginia's governor signed a law last week.

A New York law that took effect in 2010 added three classifications, from a misdemeanor requiring no proof of injury to a Class "C" felony, and it yielded more than 11,000 charges in its first 14 months, according to the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Still, bills have stalled in some states as opponents, including defense lawyers, say that enough laws are in place to protect victims and that new measures will create excessive prosecution.

Lawmakers in some other states, however, have been inspired by testimony from victims and their family members.

New Hampshire passed its statute two years ago after the October 2009 murder of Melissa Charbonneau, who was fatally shot by her estranged husband a couple of days after he choked her. Jonathan Charbonneau, who was out on bail for misdemeanor assault at the time, then turned the gun on himself. Lawmakers responded with a law that treats attempted strangulation as a second-degree felony, carries a sentence of 3 1/2 to seven years in prison and allows police to detain suspected abusers to keep violence from escalating.

"If we had the strangulation law at that time, I believe there would have been a cooling-down period, and a lot of this may not have happened," said Melissa Charbonneau's father, John Cantin.