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Massachusetts Appeals Courts domestic assault and battery crime of Strangulations in recent decision

The Massachusetts Appeals Courts defined the crime of Strangulation in a recent decision.  This is a felony offense which can be charged in a domestic assault and battery case.  In the recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision in Commonwealth v. Rogers, Mass. App. Ct., No. 19-P-229, slip op. at December 31, 2019, the court reviewed a domestic assault and battery conviction and ruled that although there were not facts in evidence that the victim could not breathe during strangulation, there was sufficient evidence to infer that the defendant’s intentional grabbing of the victim’s neck interfered with the victim’s breathing, thus neck grabbing is strangulation.

This case involves a couple that had been dating for ten years and starts in Bourne, Massachusetts after a 911 call to police in 2018.  During that 911 call, the victim told dispatch that she had been “assaulted” by the defendant.   When police arrived at the couple’s home and spoke to the victim, police noticed marks on the victim’s neck and scratches on her chest.  Police took photos of the injuries and the photos were later used as evidence at trial.  During the trial, the victim testified that the defendant had grabbed her by the sweatshirt with one hand and around the neck with his other hand. The victim also stated that the defendant, while applying pressure to her neck, stood her up from the couch and threw her onto the floor.  The victim also told the jury that when the defendant had his hand around her neck, she felt pain and almost “peed [her] pants.”  When the defendant released his hand from her neck she coughed.  The trial ended in the defendant being convicted for strangulation.

The defendant appealed the conviction on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support a strangulation conviction.  The defendant claimed that the evidence did not suggest that he touched the victim’s throat or neck, and further contended that there was no basis to conclude that his conduct interrupted the victim’s breathing. The defendant also challenged the inconsistencies in the victim’s statements.   During her testimony, the victim initially said that the defendant had his hand around her jaw line.  At other times in her testimony, the victim referred to the defendant having his hand on her “throat” and “neck.”  The trial record indicated that the victim had demonstrated the location of the defendant’s hand to the jury.

The accepted and used definition for strangulation is under G.L. c.265, § 15D (a), which states “the intentional interference of the normal breathing or circulation of blood.” In Rogers, the court further defined strangulation by defining interference.  Prior to this case, neither the legislature nor the courts had set a legal definition or standard for what it meant to “interfere with normal breathing” in Massachusetts.  The legal definition for interference is now defined as “to interpose in a way that hinders or impedes.”  This new legal definition for interference assisted the court in its determination that the defendant had committed strangulation and affirmed the conviction.

Reasoning of the Appeals Court 

The court’s reasoning was that although the victim had never testified that her breathing was hindered or impeded, the court believed that the evidence showed that the defendant grabbed the victim by the throat and determined that the grab was enough to infer that there was interference with the victim’s breathing.  The court based on its reasoning on the victim’s testimony and demonstration of the defendant’s hand on her neck.  The victim’s testimony also described how the defendant, while grabbing her neck and applying pressure, stood her up from the couch, dragged her, and threw her.  She testified that when the defendant applied pressure to her neck, she felt pain and that she coughed when he released his hand from her throat.  Lastly, the court determined that since the defendant’s grasping of the victim’s neck was with enough force to leave marks on her neck, that police saw and took photos of, that it must have been strangulation.  The court determined that based on these facts, it was a reasonable inference for the jury to conclude that the defendant interfered with the victim’s “normal breathing” under the Massachusetts strangulation law.

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