Ashanti Hunter (Ashanti) was a mother, daughter, and cousin with a very bright future. Ashanti's family recalls that she was "the brain of the family, graduating high school at 16 with a perfect GPA." (1) After high school, Ashanti enlisted in the United States Air Force at age seventeen. Unfortunately, this loving mother of three would never realize her ultimate potential because her longtime boyfriend, Albee Lewis (Lewis), brutally murdered her on April 30, 2017.
Earlier that day, Ashanti and Lewis had an argument. Ashanti was trying to get away from Lewis. As she attempted to leave, Lewis strangled her. Ashanti eventually escaped from her apartment with two of her children. As Ashanti sat in the passenger seat of her cousin's car, having finally gained the strength to leave her abuser, Lewis shot her at point blank range in front of her children and family. Ashanti's two children, soaked in their mother's blood, literally watched the life leave their mother's body as she took her last breath right before their innocent eyes.
Before her murder, Ashanti and Lewis dated for five years. And although she would frequently complain of Lewis being verbally and physically abusive, she hadn't tried to leave until that fateful day of April 30, 2017. A thorough review of police reports show that Ashanti called police on multiple occasions, yet no criminal charges were ever authorized. Those reports include incidents of simple assault, harassment, and most importantly STRANGULATION, known in Texas as Impeding Breath or Circulation.
A summary of Ashanti's prior abuse allegations reports are listed below:
* Incident #1, 3/19/14 -- Lewis grabbed Ashanti by the neck and STRANGLED her and punched her in left cheek three times.
* Incident #2, 2/25/15 -- Lewis STRANGLED Ashanti until she felt like she was going to pass out and told her she would die if she left him. Ashanti reports that she starts to lose faith in system.
* Incident #3, 7/26/15 -- Lewis bends Ashanti's arm upward causing pain. Later, Lewis comes back and kicks in the door.
* Incident #4, 12/10/16 -- Lewis argued with Ashanti for money and he threw her to the ground. Ashanti was holding knife in self-defense when police arrive.
* Incident #5, 2/7/2017 -- Lewis struck Ashanti in her face. Ashanti did not want to press charges because she was in fear that Child Protection Services would be involved and didn't want him in jail.
* April 30, 2017 -- 87 days later, Lewis STRANGLES Ashanti and although she escapes to a vehicle to flee, he murders her in front of her children and family.
Sadly, the system failed Ashanti. But on May 1, 2017, determined that Harris County, Houston, TX would learn from this tragedy and improve our community's response, District Attorney Kim Ogg, who had just been sworn into office five months prior, assigned me the task of evaluating Ashanti's murder and the series of incidents mentioned above. My task was clear yet comprehensive. As the Division Chief of the Family Criminal Law Division (FCLD), I was asked to determine the systemic gaps that existed within our criminal justice system that allowed Ashanti to suffer in silence for so many years, without the intervention and support of law enforcement. Ashanti's brutal murder, as she was trying to flee her abuser, is a sobering occurrence that happens too frequently within our communities. "With distressing frequency, domestic violence ends, not in escape and reconstruction of the woman's life, but in murder or murder/suicide." (2) In the United States, three women are killed each day by their intimate partners. (1) And while strangulation is not the cause of death for all domestic violence homicides, evidence of prior [non-fatal] strangulation, like that experienced by Ashanti in the years before her death, "inhabits a category all its own in domestic violence as a marker of lethality. A kick, a punch, a slap, a bite--none of these, though terrible, portend homicide like strangulation does." (4) Accordingly, understanding dangerousness and lethality factors like strangulation are critical to developing an effective response to domestic violence and preventing domestic violence homicides.
Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence.' Best practices suggest that all domestic violence cases should be screened for potential lethality with strangulation being one of the highest rated lethality factors. Harvard Law Professor Diane Rosenfeld notes "strangulation is not only a reliable indicator of future homicide attempts or actual homicides but also as an apt metaphor for the control abusers often exert over their victims." (6) The mere presence of strangulation in a situation of domestic abuse increases the chances of homicide sevenfold. (7) Strangulation is a clear trajectory from escalating violence to homicide, of which strangulation is the penultimate act. (8) Gael Strack, chief executive of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego, CA, provides "statistically, we know that once the hands are on the neck, the very next step is homicide. They don't go backwards.'' (9) And while no police officer, prosecutor or advocate can see into the future nor guarantee that a woman (10) won't be murdered by her intimate partner, domestic violence homicides are so predictable as to be preventable. (11)
Domestic violence cases that result in murder are not a random sample of domestic violence cases. Death is far more likely when certain factors [such as strangulation and weapons are present] than when they are absent. (12) "While the number of women murdered by their intimate partners is only a small percentage of women who report being beaten and abused, these murders have enormous symbolic value. They are the background against which so much sublethal violence is committed. [Like Ashanti], many battered women do not know whether the next beating will be a fatal one." (13) Because batters wield power and control over their victims, they constantly manipulate their victims, making them acutely aware that murder is always a possibility. Harris County internal case research proves that victims who experience non-fatal strangulation by an intimate partner, are at the highest risk for escalating violence or homicide. Recognizing this, communities should prioritize domestic violence by developing coordinated community responses that include innovative prosecution strategies that consider "the level of potential dangerousness in any domestic violence case [particularly strangulation] and creates an effective response that focuses on offender containment to keep the victim safe." (14) Accordingly, this article will focus on the dynamics of strangulation, effective prosecuting strategies for non-fatal strangulation cases, and how a coordinated community response can effectively support strangulation victims, while achieving the ultimate goal of preventing domestic violence homicides.
UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMICS OF STRANGULATION
In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized strangulation as a marker of dangerousness and recommended increased prison time--up to 10 years--for those convicted of it. (15) Currently, 45 states, including Texas now recognize strangulation as a felony. (16) In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed a law codifying family violence strangulation or suffocation as a third degree felony punishable from 2 to 10 years for the first offense and 2 to 20 years for subsequent convictions. Texas Penal Code Section 22.01 provides.in part, that "... the offense is committed by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly impeding the normal breathing or circulation of the blood of the person by applying pressure to the person's throat or neck or by blocking the person's nose or mouth. (17) In a pamphlet designed to educate advocates and survivors about strangulation, the Texas Council on Family Violence explains:
"Strangulation is impeding the normal blood flow and/ or the airflow by applying external pressure to the neck or throat. Depriving oxygen (via the blood) to the brain causes unconsciousness in as little as 10 seconds, then permanent injury (such as difficulty in concentration and loss of short-term memory capacity). If uninterrupted, strangulation may lead to death in as little as two minutes. Strangulation can be accomplished in various ways including: ligature, manual, and hanging...