The Washington Post
Rise in strangulations worries Fairfax County
Arrests are up, but convictions remain rare, authorities say
Inside an upscale conference room at the Capital One Tower in Tysons, Fairfax County judges, police, prosecutors and public defenders graded the county’s handling of strangulation cases, which officials say are often indicative of domestic violence.
The room was split: Half gave Fairfax a C, while others said it deserved a D.
In 2022, there were 217 instances in which Fairfax County authorities charged someone with strangulation, or knowingly applying pressure to a person’s neck, according to data provided by police. That is an increase of 83 cases from the year before, when data shows there were 134 instances in which someone was charged with the crime. But authorities say that although arrests are rising, prosecutions that end in convictions remain sparse.
“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 was one of 100 people who gathered in February for an all-day training on strangulation prevention, vexed by the uptick of charges within the county without corresponding convictions. Officials declined to release data on how many charges since 2021 have led to a trial or a criminal conviction but said many strangulation cases get dropped or end with defendants pleading guilty to lesser charges.
The reasons are numerous. Police Chief Kevin Davis said his officers could improve how they collect evidence. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (D) said it is not uncommon for victims to stop cooperating with prosecutors — especially as the months drag on between arrest and trial and victims and perpetrators reconcile.
“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 probing points in the criminal system when people who alleged they had been strangled were denied justice — from 911 dispatch to trial. Presenters at the symposium implored officials to take more seriously that strangling someone, which blocks air and blood flow to the brain, can have lethal consequences.
“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.
More than a decade ago, strangulation became its own felony in Virginia, separating it from other assaults.
Casey Gwinn and Gael Strack, the Alliance for Hope International leaders who hosted the symposium, said they favored the stand-alone legislation, which exists in every state except South Carolina and also does not exist in D.C. But Strack said detectives commonly failed to document physical signs that the crime occurred, such as petechiae or drooping eyelids, which might support the felony charge.
“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.
Strangulation often occurs during domestic violence, and men make up the vast majority of those accused of such attacks, police said. Of the 378 cases that police have investigated between the start of 2021 and February 2023, 362 of the assailants were men, which is roughly 96 percent, police data shows. Police did not provide data on strangulation survivors but noted the majority were women, which Strack and Gwinn said reflected a national trend.
Saly Fayez, director of victim services in Fairfax, said victims were sometimes reluctant to speak out against their assailants, fearful they might face retaliation. “If pursuing charges would put the victim in further harm, we do have to weigh heavily on that,” Fayez said.
Gwinn, who was the city attorney for San Diego before entering advocacy work, said prosecutors not pursuing a case could have fatal consequences. He and Strack presented research to participants about the dangers associated with strangulation, including a study that showed women who were strangled and survived were nearly 71/ times as likely to
2 later be a victim of homicide.
Descano, the Fairfax prosecutor, said data shows his office typically seeks to have those accused of strangulation remain in jail pending trial, but judges don’t always grant the requests. In 90 of the 112 bond hearings for strangulation cases documented by his office in 2022, prosecutors requested defendants be detained. Judges granted the requests at 43 of the hearings, Descano’s data shows.
During the symposium, Leslie Morgan Steiner, a domestic violence survivor who wrote a book about the abuse, spoke to the attendees. She shared the intimate details of her former marriage in which she was strangled and nearly beaten to death, though the abuse never led to criminal charges.
After she shared her story, people began to ask her questions. One detective asked Steiner how law enforcement can convey to a victim that they’re in danger while being sensitive that the victim might have complicated views about the person being accused. Another person asked Steiner whether she would have testified against her husband during the abuse, to which she answered, “I wouldn’t lie to you, I would’ve recanted.”
Even if victims stop cooperating, Gwinn said prosecutors should carry on with cases if evidence allows them to do so.
“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, did not attend the symposium but said some of the attorneys from her office who went took issue with the event — which she said assumed people were guilty, even if they were not convicted.
“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.”
Davis, the police chief, said women who were strangled and survived deserve better from the county.
“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.”
“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.” Steve Descano (D), Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney