Domestic violence advocates tout progress of strangulation bills at the Roundhouse

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Daniel Ivey-Soto

Gabriela Campos / The New Mexican

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto speaks Friday on the Senate floor about his bill that would add strangulation and suffocation to the Family Violence Protection Act, meaning that if a person is accused of impeding the ability of another to breathe, the suspect can be charged with felony battery. New Mexico is one of only five states that don’t specifically prohibit these potentially deadly acts.

In late January, 26-year-old Alex Maestas was arrested after an hours-long standoff with a Santa Fe police SWAT team, an incident sparked by a report of a woman beaten and strangled at his home.

A criminal complaint says the young woman told officers that Maestas, her boyfriend, had began arguing with her after night of drinking and then pinned her to the bed and choked her with both hands until she couldn’t breathe. As he was choking her, she said, he told her two times, “You need to die.”

According to the complaint filed by Officer Jeremy Rose in the Santa Fe County Magistrate Court, the woman was able to escape and sought help from an officer she spotted nearby. In the meantime, the complaint says, Maestas began firing guns in the home.

He came outside twice during the standoff, brandishing a weapon, police said. The second time he emerged, an officer shot Maestas with a beanbag round and he was taken into custody. Among other charges, Maestas faces a count of aggravated battery against a household member on suspicion of strangling the woman.

That might sound reasonable, but advocates of domestic violence and sexual assault victims say such a charge is rare. They’re hoping to change that with new legislation that would define strangulation as a crime.

Under current state statutes, this potentially deadly act that affects thousands of people in New Mexico — often with lifelong symptoms of brain trauma — is nearly impossible to prosecute. The state is one of only five in the nation without a law specifying that strangulation is a crime. Last year, Montana became the 45th state creating a felony strangulation offense.

Senate Bill 61, largely aimed at protecting women and children, is one of a slew of violence-prevention measures proposed during a legislative session that comes as the state is grappling with grief and guilt over what authorities say was the horrific beating death of a 13-year-old boy in Santa Fe County at the hands of a convicted serial abuser.

Advocates believe the strangulation bill, a years-long effort that many say is the most important domestic violence bill in the state this year, will survive.

“I think it’s going to be signed,” said Sheila Lewis, director of the violence-prevention initiative Santa Fe Safe, during a phone interview Friday.

Hours later at the state Capitol, SB 61 passed the full Senate on a 40-0 vote in just minutes.

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The measure’s progress came as Lewis was preparing for the public release Monday of a task force report on New Mexico’s system of response to strangulation by intimate partners — and the state’s need for far more training to address the issue as both a crime and a public health concern. The Intimate Partner Strangulation Task Force, convened last year through a Senate memorial, followed more than five years of failed bills aimed at ensuring offenders are held accountable.

If it can clear a couple of House committees and make its way to House floor before noon Thursday, SB 61 finally would add suffocation and strangulation to the state’s Family Violence Protection Act, Crimes Against Household Members Act and Abuse and Neglect Act — clarifying that if a person is accused of impeding the ability of another to breathe by applying force to the neck or throat, or by blocking the nose or mouth, the suspect can be charged with aggravated battery.

For people like Lewis and Pam Wiseman, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque, only makes sense.

“Strangulation is very common,” Wiseman said. “Many women, perhaps a majority of victims who are in shelters, have been strangled multiple times. And the reason it’s so dangerous is because, for one, the people who do it often minimize it: ‘Oh, I just grabbed her. I choked her.’ ”

It’s difficult for prosecutors to charge someone for the crime, she said, because marks from the attack are rarely visible. “The injuries are internal, so it’s harder to prove.”

Indeed, the criminal complaint filed against Maestas says the woman had “visible injuries to her lip, cheek, a raised reddish bump on the back of her head” — but no mention of marks on her throat.

Mentions of strangulation or suffocation are common in reports of domestic violence or sexual assault, but usually as a side note. For instance, a criminal complaint filed last week by a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s deputy against a man accused of holding a woman at gunpoint in his home says the woman told officers the man had put his hand over her mouth, so she couldn’t breathe, and then raped her during the incident.

Brandon Thomas May, 26, of Nambé was arrested on suspicion of crimes related to the incident, but he has not been charged with rape or battery.

Children, too, are victimized by strangulation.

Jeremiah Valencia, the boy whose slaying in Nambé in November was discovered by authorities late last month, might have been one of them. According to a sheriff’s office affidavit, the 19-year-old son of the man authorities have accused of killing the boy told investigators his father frequently choked Jeremiah.

Jordan Nuñez, who also is charged in the child’s death, said Thomas Wayne Ferguson, 42, often would strangle Jeremiah until he lost consciousness.

The state’s Intimate Partner Strangulation Task Force has spent the last year training first responders, medical professionals and prosecutors to identify signs of this type of abuse.

House Bill 40 would bolster those efforts by requiring basic law enforcement training and officer in-service training to include information about strangulation. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, an Albuquerque Republican, cleared the House floor on a unanimous vote Thursday and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

Other bills introduced this session would provide funding to increase state payments to organizations that provide services for child and adult victims of physical and sexual abuse. The bills are necessary, advocates say, in a state with some of the highest rates of domestic violence, child abuse and women killed by men. Many of the measures will die quietly before the 30-day session ends Thursday, not exactly rejected by lawmakers but not considered urgent enough to send to the top of a busy committee’s agenda.

Progress in addressing domestic violence in communities across the state won’t happen without additional funding, say leaders of the Santa Fe-based Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families and Solace Crisis Treatment Center.

“The rate of domestic violence in Santa Fe County is higher than it is across most of the country,” said Esperanza Executive Director Anji Estrellas, “and there is much work to be done.”

Wiseman said reimbursement rates for domestic violence counseling hasn’t increased in 18 years.

María José Rodríguez Cádiz, executive director of Solace, said funding for sexual assault services has not significantly increased in a dozen years, even as the needs have risen.

Several proposed bills would appropriate funding for such services, but are awaiting hearings before legislative finance committees. Among them:

  • House Bill 159, $3.5 million to increase reimbursement rates for domestic violence service providers.
  • House Bill 154, $350,000 for offender intervention programs.
  • House Bill 203, $2 million for sexual assault victims services.
  • House Bill 53, $145,000 for human trafficking victims services.
  • Senate Bill 123, $1.2 million for the Albuquerque Police Department to process evidence in decades-old sexual assault cases.
  • Senate Bill 202, $75,000 to create child sexual abuse programs.
  • Senate Bill 31, $100,000 to train teachers and other school workers how to identify and report signs that a student has been sexually assaulted.

“I think some bills are really important,” Wiseman said, “and we lament if they don’t make it all the way through. I also think that what’s really important, if we want to change the problem of domestic violence, is that our communities become aware. That’s really how it has to start.

“Bill or no bill, law or no law,” she said, the coalition and other groups will continue their efforts to educate communities and train responders.

She sees a turning point in the recent explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that expose people accused of sexual harassment and violence against women.

“It’s important that we name names,” Wiseman said. “… We talk about patriarchy or misogyny or sexual abuse or sexual assault as if they cause bad things to happen to people. They don’t. Domestic abusers do. Sexual predators do.”

Estrellas agrees. “Speaking out on these issues is critical,” she said. “Funding programs in support of these issues is critical. For too long the serious impact of domestic violence has been minimized, and the funding for DV programs has been marginalized.

“Women and children, typically the victims of abuse, deserve better,” she said. “Anyone experiencing abuse should be able to get help and live with hope.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at (505) 986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

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