Crime & Courts

Domestic violence occurs each day in Charlotte. One act predicts it’ll turn lethal.

Charlotte’s first homicide of 2018 an example of strangulation as a risk factor, police say

The first homicide of 2018 in Charlotte showed strangulation is a risk factor for deadly violence, CMPD Sgt. Craig Varnum said.
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The first homicide of 2018 in Charlotte showed strangulation is a risk factor for deadly violence, CMPD Sgt. Craig Varnum said.

Charlotte’s leaders are anxious to reduce the city’s domestic violence, which has played a role in every homicide in Charlotte so far this year.

But homicides – more than 20 in 2017, four this year – represent a tiny slice of the domestic violence problem. Police get about 35,000 calls per year related to domestic violence, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sgt. Craig Varnum said in December. Those calls lead to about 9,000 reports of criminal domestic violence offenses every year.

That’s 25 offenses per day. In the main emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center, health care providers meet with one to five patients facing domestic violence in an average 24-hour shift, Dr. Maria Pelucio said.

But even with so many cases, the people helping domestic violence victims are only starting to understand the risk associated with one violent act – strangulation.

Women who have been strangled by an intimate partner are seven times more likely to be killed by their partner, according to a 2008 study from the Journal of Emergency Medicine. The final violent act might not be strangulation, but a history of strangulation is a huge risk factor, research shows.

“Everyone in the community needs to know that that is a red flag,” Varnum said. “As the professionals and the experts in this field have told us, these folks are potential killers.”

“So if … you know someone in a domestic violence situation and they make any allusion to having been strangled, that needs to be reported, they need resources.”

The city's first homicide victim of 2018 was 24-year-old Brittany White. In 2017, she wrote in a domestic violence protective order filing that her boyfriend Jonathan Bennett had strangled her, Varnum said.

On Jan. 11, police say Bennett shot and killed White. Hours later, he shot at police officers outside CMPD's headquarters and struck one before police killed him.

"The research that is being done nationwide is very much true in our own community," Varnum said.

The San Diego-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention is trying to teach everyone working on domestic violence about that research and the progress that can be made because of it.

In June, the institute will hold a four-day training session in Charlotte to talk with the city’s medical, legal and law enforcement communities about how to investigate and prosecute strangulation cases – so everyone is on the same page, said Varnum, who leads CMPD’s domestic violence unit.

In her work, Pelucio screens for strokes, chest pain, all kinds of health conditions – but she said she can’t think of anything that comes with risks as high as strangulation.

“It’s profound,” she said. “When I heard that statistic and I saw it reproduced, I’m like, I have to get involved. Because it’s a really gruesome thing, and I don’t think we as a medical community knew that up until these last few years – when the strangulation institute started to bring it more to our (attention).”

Part of the problem, Varnum said, is that people misunderstand what strangulation means. Legally, anything along the lines of “choking” likely qualifies as strangulation, and in North Carolina, strangulation is a low-level felony.

Varnum said officers are learning to ask victims if they’ve been strangled using different language, because many who initially say no realize that the answer is yes.

“A lot of people believe that if they say they were strangled, that means they were dead,” he said.

The physical and psychological effects of strangulation also make prosecution difficult, Varnum said. When the brain isn’t getting enough oxygenated blood, the hippocampus – the part of the brain that deals with memory – can shut down.

“When somebody’s in that state, their memory kinda goes out the window,” Varnum said. “So relying on a victim to tell us their story back in a nice clear, linear fashion can become very difficult.

“As a result, again, it has to be an evidence-based approach. So we need to compile everything that we have, so corroborating information from witnesses, information that our first responders observed, our medical professionals, and we can put all that together to prepare a case that can see successful prosecution, even in the absence of a prosecuting victim.”

Varnum also said the training coming to Charlotte in June has been shown to keep victims engaged with prosecution in other cities.

The focus on strangulation is only one part of Charlotte’s plan to reduce domestic violence. In December, plans were announced for a family justice center, which would help victims get all the services they need in one place – though the center won’t open for years.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester