September 19th, 2020. 20-year-old Dean Skillen and his cousin were enjoying a post-lockdown night out in Bangor, Wales, when another young man attacked them without provocation.

As any experienced security operative can attest, events such as these are commonplace throughout the UK. However, in the case of Dean Skillen, this was far worse than assault.

As night drifted into the early hours of the following day, Dean died from wounds sustained by his assailant’s punch.

As Darren’s grief-stricken mother would later tell news reporters, It’s just a nightmare, your child goes out the door one Friday night and never comes home. It’s really painful.”

The attacker pled guilty to manslaughter and received a sentence of 10 years in prison.

The tragic death of Dean Skillen is sadly not an isolated incident. In 2016, former soldier Chris Henchliffe died in Chesterfield, after being punched just once during an altercation.

In this case, the killer served 5 and a half years’ sentence and is, at present, freely living his life.

Similar incidents claimed the lives of Nottingham resident Robert Holland in 2011, sailor Kyle Bartlett in 2009 and Carl Chinnock of Bridgend, who was punched by a stranger in June of 2021 and died after 4 agonising days in intensive care.

Wayne Urwin, from Hebburn was left comatose following a single punch that occurred in 2014. He suffered bleeding in his brain and required emergency surgery to remove parts of his skull. Miraculously, Mr. Urwin survived his ordeal and has since gone on to advocate for harsher sentences to be handed out to one-punch killers.

Most people know that a single punch can be incredibly damaging to the human body, but not everyone knows that in some cases, even a single punch can kill.

In this feature, we’ll be examining the phenomenon of one-punch deaths, how they occur, what is being done to prevent them and how you can potentially save lives by helping patrons and colleagues to avoid them.

How Can One Punch Kill?

There are many ways that a single punch can kill. The obvious one, of course, occurs when the recipient of the blow hits their head after falling backwards. Another way that death can occur following a single punch is if the unconscious victim stops breathing and suffocates.

The blow itself, however, can be enough to kill in its own right. Any time a human head is impacted, it causes the brain to hit the skull. Cranial fluid only offers so much protection and, if the impact is violent enough, it can cause the brain to hit the opposite side of the skull as well. This can cause a twisting of the brain, which is every bit as dangerous as it sounds.

If a person’s head is suddenly jolted, this forces the brain forward. The resulting impact is known as a ‘coup’, a ‘countercoup’ occurs when the brain travels backwards and impacts the back walls of the skull.

The brain is extremely sensitive – and relies almost entirely upon the cranial fluid and the skull for protection. The brain itself can be easily damaged, even coming apart to some extent.

So, given this, why aren’t more people dying from being punched in the head?

The good news is that bone is an extremely strong substance. In fact, gram for gram, it’s stronger than both concrete and steel. Bone tends to break due to rapid impacts, as opposed to slow ones. This phenomenon was investigated by biomedical engineer Dr. Cindy Bir at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Dr. Bir and her team found that trained boxers could generate up to 5000 Newtons of force with a single punch – that’s the equivalent of over 500kg (half a ton) of force pressing down upon the Earth’s surface. A rapid body blow that delivers 3,300 Newtons of force, for example, has a 25% chance of cracking a person’s ribs.

So, a punch doesn’t have to be exceptionally powerful, or even competently thrown, in order to kill somebody. In fact, almost any able-bodied person can potentially deliver a fatal punch. The blow simply must be delivered quickly and hit the victim at the right angle.

A fast punch that can whip a person’s head around has a good chance of knocking the person unconscious or potentially causing brain damage, because the brain will impact the walls of the skull and come to harm, the severity of which is almost impossible to predict until after the blow has been delivered.

The fact that so many one-punch deaths come from blows that are unprovoked, or take the victim by surprise, is very explainable as well. People who aren’t expecting to be hit are not protecting themselves in any way. Accordingly, the head takes the full force of the blow, offering no resistance and greatly increasing the chances of brain damage.

Does Throwing a Punch Qualify as ‘Reasonable Force’?

As a security operative, you should not be throwing punches. It’s really that simple. Modern security methods favour de-escalation strategies and, where necessary, restraint techniques or citizen’s arrests.

Strikes, blocks and takedowns, when used defensively, are acceptable in instances whereby an operative is outnumbered, confronted with a deadly weapon, or is otherwise seriously imperilled, but their use should be confined to extreme situations.

The definition of ‘reasonable force’ is the amount of force necessary to keep yourself or your property safe from unlawful aggression or harm. Ergo, it is conceivable that a closed fist to the face or head may fall under that definition in certain extreme circumstances (we refer here to attempts by patrons to use deadly weapons, or an attack on a single operative by multiple assailants).

We cannot say for sure exactly how employers, courts and a jury may see it (should it come to that), but it is possible that, in those cases, punches may be seen as a reasonable use of force, provided that all other options have either failed or could not be used at the time.

What the Law Says

We’ve written in greater detail about how UK laws treat assault. However, it’s worth briefly revisiting this subject here.

UK law defines assault by 4 categories. The first, common assault, occurs in instances whereby one person harms another, or gives them cause to believe they are about to be harmed (issuing a verbal threat, for example, can be classified as a common assault). Common assault is largely limited to pushing and shoving.

In cases where punches are thrown, the charges will likely be raised to ‘battery’ or ‘assault by beating’. Common assault carries a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment.

The second category, indecent assault, deals with non-consensual sex acts and encounter

The third category is Actual Bodily Harm (usually abbreviated to ‘ABH’). ABH occurs only when physical harm has been inflicted. If the victim has sustained wounds from their assault, ABH charges could potentially apply. ABH carries with it a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment.

The fourth category is Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH). GBH charges involve more serious wounds being inflicted upon the victim of the assault. ‘Wounds’ are defined by law as any piercing of the skin, however GBH charges are usually only applied to very serious harm being inflicted, such as broken bones, permanent disfigurement or lasting damage. GBH charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 5 years’ imprisonment

As stated earlier, a one-punch death generally falls under the definition of manslaughter. The key difference between manslaughter and murder being intent. Manslaughter is a very serious charge and carries with it a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

A murder is committed when a person intends – and succeeds – in taking the life of another person. Manslaughter occurs in cases where the intent may have been to harm, but not kill, another person.

While nobody can realistically claim that they threw a punch without intent to harm, the high likelihood in such cases is that the assailant had no murderous intent.

Though more common than we might think, one-punch deaths are statistically very unlikely. It therefore strains credulity to think that the person throwing the punch inteed to kill their victim.

Indeed, if murder were the attacker’s intent, it would be far more likely to see attempts made to strangle, shoot, or stab the victim, or else to beat them multiple times with a blunt or heavy object. The point is that there are vastly more efficient ways to kill somebody than hitting them and hoping for a one-punch death. 

Nevertheless, in such cases, a person has died due to the actions of another – and families of the deceased have every right to desire, even demand, justice. 

The question that must be asked, then, is if it is fair or not to charge a person with murder if they killed somebody else by accident, even while attempting to cause harm to them? How important are issues such as intent, circumstances, provocation, or the attacker’s personal history?

Moreover, is it morally justifiable to issue a sentence of life imprisonment for a single mistake made in an instant of anger?

These are not easy questions to answer, and there are many different views on the subject. Where you stand on the issue is, of course, a personal matter.

What is Being Done to Prevent One-Punch Deaths?

At present, there is a loud and lively call for one-punch killers to face stiffer sentences. Becky White, mother of one-punch victim Dean Skillen, spoke out after her son’s killer was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, in 2021.

White said,

“You know no sentencing would have ever been enough for my son’s life, but I would have liked to see more – and for all the other families that have had to lose someone.”

In legal terms, manslaughter refers more to accidental deaths than premeditated ones. Defence lawyer Eilian Williams, who spoke to ITV on the subject, explained that the problem with levelling murder charges is that it’s notoriously difficult to prove intent in cases of manslaughter.

He said,

“More often than not, it’s a fight in a street, it’s difficult then for the jury to decide whether that was intentional from the beginning.”

It is, of course, entirely possible that the attackers in these cases intended to kill their victims, but this cannot be proven. Of course, their intent to cause harm is beyond doubt. They did, in all cases, harm their victims, but if no deadly weapon was used, it could simply be a case of a fight, mugging or assault getting out of hand.

Legal ambiguity does little to help the still-living victims of these attacks, however. Grieving mothers like Ms. White, Chris Henchliffe’s mother Yvonne and Carl Chinnock’s partner Sandi, who described Mr. Chinnock as “my soulmate, my best friend and the love of my life” are not helped by what are often seen as weak rulings.

Mrs. Henchliffe, who, like Ms. White and others, has publicly called for stiffer sentences for one-punch killers, said “We are still in the same town. I still have the possibility that I might walk into him [the killer] in town.”

”That’s why we need to raise awareness, because that one punch can and will kill.”

In 2021, Lincolnshire police launched a public information campaign aimed at educating the public against violent assault – and one-punch deaths in particular. The move followed the one-punch deaths of 2 local men, Gediminus Vaitkus and Danny Maguire, who each died following separate incidents in 2020. A 3rd victim, Mark Hatcher, was left with permanent brain damage following a single-punch assault.

A similar ‘One Punch Can Kill’ campaign, started by Kyle Bartlett’s mother, Ann, in 2010 has had some success.

There are also several international equivalents to this grassroots movement. In the UK, the One Punch Can Kill campaign has recorded more than 80 one-punch deaths since 2007. The gathering and dissemination of such data could potentially be used to inspire a legislative response.

It appears to be a major stumbling block in the minds of many people that a single punch could do anything more than – at most – render a person unconscious. The reality is starkly different. As with a knife, there is no way to assault another human being without the risk of visiting serious harm against them, or even causing their death.

The reality is as hard for the perpetrators of these attacks as well. One-punch killers, if convicted, will be sentenced to prison, and will also be forced to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. A moment’s anger can lead, therefore, to a lifetime of regret.

East Midlands Special Operations Unit officer Richard Myszczyszn, told Lincolnshire World, One action can mean the difference between your family visiting you in prison or coming to say their final goodbyes to you in the intensive care unit. If you face confrontation whilst out, please remember the sensible thing is to turn around and walk away.”

In Parliament, MP Dehenna Davison, who represents the Bishop Auckland constituency in Sheffield, started the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group for One-Punch Assaults’ (APPG) in 2021. Her own father, Dominic, was killed in a one-punch attack in 2007, when she was just 13 years old.

On the death of her father, Ms. Davison has said,

Alongside trying to process the grief and shock of losing Dad so suddenly, there was also the pressure and uncertainty of the court case, which took 10 months to complete, and ultimately left us with a burning sense of injustice”.

The cross-party group has been formed with the intention of seeking, among other things, harsher sentences for one-punch killers.

In forming the group, the MP hopes to

Speak to the victims of assaults and their families, perpetrators, lawyers of both sides, judges, police officers, and other stakeholders to pull together an objective, evidence-based report and series of proposals for how the sentencing system could be changed to provide a fairer sense of justice”.

In 2011, 19-year-old Jacob Dunne punched and killed 28-year-old trainee paramedic James Hodgkinson. Dunne served a 30-month sentence for manslaughter. Upon his release, Dunne turned his life around, re-taking his GCSEs, studying criminology at university, and formally apologising to the victim’s family, with whom he keeps in touch. Dunne now visits schools in order to educate young people about the dangers of violence and has even delivered a TED talk.

Dunne believes that teaching children about emotional wellbeing would prevent a lot of violence. In 2017, he told the BBC,

In reality, people need to ask the question ‘why are you fighting on the weekends?’ The answer is going to be different for everyone.”

In Australia, a one-punch death carries a mandatory sentence of 8 years. There are many in the UK who feel that a similar response would be appropriate here. At present in the UK, the definition of manslaughter still applies to a one-punch death, but whether this is right or fair to the families of the victims remains a controversial topic.

Keeping the Public Safe

Public awareness of the threats posed by physical violence is key here. Information campaigns have been generally successful in informing the public that a single punch can end one life and ruin another. To this end, putting up posters and ensuring that patrons, staff, and colleagues are aware of the dangers that a single punch can offer can genuinely save lives.

As hard as it may be to believe, some venues still have a somewhat lax attitude to threatening behaviour and fighting. Threatening stares, verbal abuse and unsolicited physical contact should never be tolerated.

A security operative who can step in early with a firm, but fair verbal command can often mitigate such a situation before it even begins. The advice here is to be vigilant. Watch for the warning signs that a fight is about to break out and act early to put a stop to it before it does.

As a security operative, it helps if you know how to dodge and, if necessary, take a punch. As we have seen, certain types of cranial impacts increase the risk of concussion, brain damage and death. Every security worker in the world can also understand how, by dint of professionally being in harm’s way, they are at a greater risk of being the victim of a one-punch death.

Indeed, such a death occurred in Australia last October, when retail security guard Charles Lewis was struck while at work and later died from his injuries.

Practicing defensive techniques, such as boxing-style head movement drills can help to ensure that, if you are punched, you can greatly reduce the risk of serious damage. Learning how to take a punch can be the difference between serious injury and walking away from a violent encounter relatively unscathed.

This video, posted by Buzzfeed Multiplayer in 2016, demonstrates how difficult it is for an untrained person to even hit a trained fighter. With even a small effort, you can become much harder to hit, and therefore able to keep yourself and others safe without seriously harming the assailant.

Of course, the best way to avoid one-punch deaths is simply to avoid any punches being thrown at all – and that can often be accomplished by communication, a firm presence, and the proper application of de-escalation strategies.

One-punch deaths are completely unexpected and shocking in their brutality. It takes only a moment of anger to end one life and ruin another. This is definitely worth remembering at all times, whether you’re working the doors or not.