ANNAPOLIS — By the time forensic nurse Pamela Holtzinger took a seat at the table and faced a committee of senators, the room was nearly empty.
After four hours of testimony about different judicial laws Wednesday, the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee called the first panel of professionals there to testify about the need to make strangulation a first-degree assault. To make it a felony.
Holtzinger, who works at Frederick Health Hospital as the forensic nurse coordinator, had already testified about strangulation. On Tuesday, she, along with other forensic nurses, state’s attorney’s office employees, social workers and a police officer, testified before the House Judiciary Committee to help them understand what happens when someone strangles another.
Strangulation is the blockage of blood vessels in the neck, which prevents oxygen from getting to or leaving the brain. In domestic violence, it is also a method of control, Holtzinger testified before the Senate committee Wednesday.
It is a “unique form of abuse,” Holtzinger said. Patients tell them they fear their abusers will kill them. That they know an abuser will kill them. That the abuser said they will kill them.
“The patients tell us this,” she testified. “We know this.”
Holtzinger was one of four people from Frederick County who testified about strangulation in the House or Senate committees. Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith also testified in favor.
The bill on the House side was introduced by Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) and is co-sponsored by the other Frederick County delegates.
“The message was the state of Maryland is only one of a few states that does not have language on the books dealing with strangulation,” Pippy said in an interview Wednesday.
He said powerful testimony at a hearing Tuesday and the fact that Maryland is one of the last states to have a first-degree assault law for strangulation and suffocation shows the state needs to act.
“What we have on the books is not working. … That is what was crystal clear from the testimony,” Pippy said.
Right now, in Maryland, strangulation can be charged as first-degree assault because the statute includes language that the act must cause or threaten serious bodily injury.
Non-fatal strangulation, as Holtzinger and other nurses, including leading strangulation researcher Jacquelyn Campbell with the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing say, can cause severe injuries and stroke.
Strangulation can also cause death, forensic nurse Rosalyn Berkowitz testified. It can take six seconds to render someone unconscious, and about one to two minutes to kill them.
But while strangulation might be charged as first-degree assault, it does not necessarily mean it will be. Melissa Hoppmeyer, with the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, testified that because strangulation is not in the first-degree assault statute, cases do not always make it to a detective’s desk.
It can also be difficult to get juries to understand the severity of strangulation, Smith said, which means prosecutors may not get a guilty verdict. That strangulation is not in the law is “antiquated,” he said.
Smith said after the hearing that if the proposal passes, it will be an important tool for prosecutors to use when working on cases like this. It could also prevent future cases from occurring, he added.
“People are going to realize that if they strangle someone, or if they suffocate someone, that they’re going to be facing a felony,” Smith said. “And these abusers are going to recognize that, and think twice about doing it.”
Holtzinger said after her testimony that jurors might have a tough time, under the current law, in seeing the effects on those affected by strangulation. There might not be physical marks, but oxygen is cut off to the brain, which causes brain cell loss and long-lasting impacts.
“They have survived, but they’re going to be dealing with these consequences for the rest of their lives,” she said. “And when we bring them near death, and this is what’s happening … we really need something that recognizes how serious this one indicator is in determining that.”
Opponents of the bill, Ricardo Flores and Melanie Shapiro, both with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, argued that the first-degree assault statute already covers strangulation. Flores also testified that Maryland has tougher second-degree assault laws and sentences than other states that have a strangulation law.
Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll) is skeptical of the proposal, sharing the opinion that there might already be laws on the books to deal with such cases.
“I’m reluctant to pass new laws [because] I want to make sure there aren’t already laws on the books that cover these things. … It seems to me that under the current law, if you attempt or intentionally attempt to commit serious bodily injury, it’s a first-degree [assault],” Hough said.
But Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick), a sponsor on the Senate bill, said he’s supportive of the change.
“Some people feel it isn’t as covered as well as it is,” Young said. “Even if they don’t kill someone, strangulation, even if they live through it, is a serious crime that can cause a lot of damage. So I don’t think there’s any harm in having it covered.”
Campbell, who testified in favor of the law, said she hopes the testimony was effective enough to persuade members of the General Assembly to pass the bills.
The state is behind by not having a law covering strangulation, she said, emphasizing that Maryland is one of three states without it.
“And that’s not where we want to be when it comes to domestic violence,” Campbell said.