Stran­gu­la­tion the edge of homi­cide

The Dominion Post - - News -

Anew law came into ef­fect this week that carves out stran­gu­la­tion as a new crim­i­nal of­fence. It ap­plies es­pe­cially in cases of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, where stran­gu­la­tion has a no­tably bale­ful record. Re­search from the United States showed vic­tims of stran­gu­la­tion are up to seven times more likely to be later mur­dered by their in­ti­mate part­ners com­pared with vic­tims of other types of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. ‘‘Stran­gu­la­tion is, in fact, one of the best pre­dic­tors for the sub­se­quent homi­cide of vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence,’’ found a re­port to the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion in 2011. ‘‘When a vic­tim is stran­gled, she is at the edge of a homi­cide.’’

In 2014, the New Zealand Fam­ily Vi­o­lence Death Re­view Com­mit­tee found stran­gu­la­tion his­to­ries in 71 per cent of its cases, and 50 per cent of those cases in­volved mul­ti­ple stran­gu­la­tions. The FVDRC con­cluded that stran­gu­la­tion was a mo­dus operandi for some abusers.

Women’s Refuge told the New Zealand Law Com­mis­sion the ‘‘vast ma­jor­ity’’ of vic­tims it deals with have been stran­gled by their part­ners. The com­mis­sion re­ported that ‘‘abusers do not stran­gle to kill, but to show that they can kill’’. But all too of­ten they ac­tu­ally kill, whether by stran­gu­la­tion or some other bru­tal­ity.

There is a great deal of ev­i­dence that stran­gling is a se­ri­ous harm and this week’s law change is ex­actly the kind of ev­i­dence-based re­form of crim­i­nal law this coun­try needs. It con­trasts starkly with the knee-jerk, pop­ulist changes we some­times get.

Un­til this week, stran­glers were typ­i­cally charged with ‘‘as­sault with in­tent to in­jure’’, which car­ried a three-year max­i­mum sen­tence, or ‘‘male as­saults fe­male’’, which car­ried a two-year max­i­mum sen­tence, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

Un­der our sys­tem, of­fend­ers rarely get the max­i­mum sen­tence. By leg­is­lat­ing a seven-year max­i­mum for stran­gu­la­tion, Par­lia­ment has clearly told po­lice, pros­e­cu­tors and judges to clamp down on this ap­palling be­hav­iour.

It’s been said that stran­gling is lit­er­ally a way to si­lence women. This must stop.

Other mea­sures against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence have also passed. Co­erced mar­riages (or civil unions) can be marred by vi­o­lence, in part be­cause there’s never any love in the re­la­tion­ship. There also may be is­sues around con­sent for sex­ual in­ti­macy in these sit­u­a­tions. The change means 16- and 17-yearolds must ap­ply to the Fam­ily Court for ap­proval to marry. Pre­vi­ously they needed only the con­sent of par­ents or guardians, who were of­ten the very peo­ple creat­ing the prob­lem.

Youth mar­riage is not com­mon in this coun­try. In 2016, 30 boys and girls aged 16 and 17 were mar­ried. Some of these must have been le­git­i­mate ex­pres­sions of love be­tween two youth­ful but com­mit­ted peo­ple. Those unions are still al­lowed, but now with the ap­proval of a judge, a rea­son­able step in the ef­fort to end forced mar­riage and to lower do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Other mea­sures toughen bail con­di­tions, im­prove video ev­i­dence rules, ad­vance the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of pro­tec­tion or­ders and the like. All came after years of con­sul­ta­tion and, if there’s any crit­i­cism to be made, it’s that change has been too slow. Co­erced mar­riage came be­fore Par­lia­ment in 2012. The Law Com­mis­sion re­ported on stran­gu­la­tion in 2016. Women and chil­dren will have suf­fered and died in that time.

‘‘By leg­is­lat­ing a seven-year max­i­mum for stran­gu­la­tion, Par­lia­ment has clearly told po­lice, pros­e­cu­tors and judges to clamp down on this ap­palling be­hav­iour.’’

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