Non-lethal strangulation research hopes to bring assurance in court testimonies

Nursing professor plans to use statistics to prove the occurrence of strangulation in relationship violence


A big goal of Laughon’s research is properly convicting offenders of strangulation and preventing future lethality.

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Due to shows such as CSI and  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, there are huge misconceptions around strangulation. Many believe that bruising and fingerprint marks after strangulation are common. In reality the signs of strangulation can be much more subtle, leading to a lack of evidence in court. Kathryn Laughon, nursing associate professor and forensic nurse, is now conducting research to change that.

“Under assault statutes, to have something more than a misdemeanor or assault and battery, you need to have serious bodily injury,” Laughon said. “Women who are strangled may experience traumatic brain injury, may go on to have chorota dissections, a form of a stroke … and they are more likely to have serious PTSD compared to all other kinds of violence.”

Due to a $726,000 grant funded by the Department of Justice, Laughon is getting ready to begin a three-year research project aiming to create a statistical method to identify strangulation. Ideally, this method will bring strong, prosecuting evidence to the courtroom. 

“Right now… I can’t really provide a degree of certainty that [certain pieces of evidence] are related to strangulation,” Laughon said. “All of the things that you see in strangulation are what I would call non-specific findings — there are a whole bunch of reasons they can occur, but it’s the cluster of them together with the story of being strangled that is important.”

In addition to the misconception about visible effects of strangulation, Laughon and Claire Kaplan, director of the Gender Violence and Social Change program, both want to emphasize the statistically significant possibility of death that comes with it. According to strangulation research, a woman who is strangled by her partner is about seven times more likely than abused women who aren’t strangled to be murdered by that same partner in the future.

“We know there is a connection between … a prior history of strangulation [and] a higher likelihood of lethality after that,” Kaplan said. “We’ve had a painful experience of that right here at U.Va. with the murder of Yeardley Love. A few weeks before George Huguely killed her, he strangled her.”

This is a big factor in Laughon’s upcoming research — properly convicting offenders of strangulation and preventing future lethality.

“Since these guys are more dangerous, they’re really the ones we want to prosecute,” Laughon said. “In Virginia, we have a specific statute for strangulation that makes it a felony, which is great. Now we have to get people to actually use it, and to do that you need to have the evidence.”

Within her research, Laughon plans on comparing women who have been strangled to those who haven’t, keeping an eye on all strangulation signs. With the help of Department of Statistics Chair Karen Kafadar, who is currently looking into pattern evidence in forensic science, the hope is to create a statistical model and research database of medical records.

“What you want is statistical probability that [strangulation findings are] a match, like you get with DNA,” Laughon said. “I don’t think we can get that exact thing with strangulation, but I want to be able to provide some statistical parameters … It just increases the science of testimony in court.”

In response to this issue, Kaplan and Laughon want to make sure students know about resources available to them, including the Shelter for Help in Emergency and the University’s Women’s Center. Charlottesville’s local police force has also implemented the Lethality Assessment Protocol, where police officers are trained in identifying strangulation in domestic abuse cases and taking the necessary steps for the victim.

In addition to the resources around the community, students can also get help right from their phones. Laughon recommended the app MyPlan, which specifically provides college students with needed information, decision making and safety planning if found in an abusive relationship.

“It’s a way to get totally confidential information, [and] it has safeguards in it so one’s abuser can’t see what you’ve put into it,” Laughon said. “I think U.Va. students ought to just download it because you never know. [Strangulation] is so common, unfortunately. Even if it doesn’t happen to one of us, we will certainly know someone.”

Laughon’s research is set to begin after the start of the new year, and by the end, she will have hopefully created a database that is able to answer future health questions.

“Who are the women that need to be held in the hospital for a day for observation to make sure they’re not going to have these late affects?” Laughon said. “We don’t want to make everyone do that, it’s expensive and it’s a pain, but we’d like to be able to identify those women with some specificity… We may be able to start answering those questions with this database.”

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