AUGUSTA — Lawmakers may make it easier for prosecutors to pursue cases involving strangulation, a crime often connected with domestic violence.

Auburn state Sen. Ned Claxton

Choking is often part of an abuser’s escalating violence, Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said.

He told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that “if we are to protect the abused person and hold the abuser accountable, the severity of the progression to strangulation needs to be recognized for what it is and prosecuted.”

Claxton’s bill would drop the requirement that prosecutors show accused stranglers acted intentionally. It would switch to the same standard applied to every other form of aggravated assault and allow cases to move forward if the state can prove intentional, knowing or reckless behavior by a person accused of the crime.

Shira Burns, a York County assistant district attorney specializing in domestic violence cases, told the committee recently that prosecutors universally want to see the 2012 statute revised. Defense lawyers are more skeptical.

But the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which offers advice on the wording of relevant statutes, said it supports a revision because it “understands that it is difficult to prove the specific intent to impede breathing or circulation.”

The criminal justice panel is slated to discuss the measure in a work session Wednesday morning in Augusta.

Amy Fairfield, a board member of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, urged legislators to leave the law as it is.

“The word intentionally is there for a reason,” she said.

As it is, Fairfield said, the law “provides the court with a heavy hammer for those who intentionally try to impede another’s breathing or circulation of blood by applying pressure to another person’s throat.”

Take out “intentionally,” though, and it would open the door for prosecutors to level a strangulation charge against anyone “who is said to have applied any amount of pressure to another’s neck or throat area,” she said.

Fairfield offered some highly emotional situations in which a less strict standard could let prosecutors bring charges against somebody who unknowingly hits a person’s neck or throat, such as a parent trying to restrain an out-of-control teenager.

The crackdown on choking that spurred the 2012 law was part of a national effort to target domestic violence perpetrators after experts pinpointed strangulation as a clear marker along the road to domestic murders. Studies found chokers were at least seven times more likely to kill a domestic partner than the norm.

It’s also a crime that is uniquely shattering, proponents of the crackdown charged.

Andrea Mancuso of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence said strangulation “inhabits a category all on its own in domestic violence as a marker of lethality.”

“lt is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence where unconsciousness may occur within seconds and death within minutes,” she said.

The Alliance for Hope International calls strangulation “an ultimate form of power and control, where the batterer can demonstrate control over the victim’s next breath,” which can have “devastating psychological effects or a potentially fatal outcome.”

The Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse said a work group on strangulation last year called the change sought by Claxton a clear priority.

Strangulation is a class B felony punishable by up to 10  years in prison.

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