- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - It’s happened countless times across Oregon: People get so angry they punch one another in the face. Most often those injuries lead to black eyes, bloody noses and bruised consciences.

Occasionally, they lead to death.

One punch can kill.

Ten days ago, 61-year-old motocross enthusiast Anthony Mancuso died after he was decked by another man and fell, striking the back of his head on pavement at Portland International Raceway, police say. Michael T. Taylor, 50, was originally arrested on a fourth-degree assault charge, but that was dismissed pending a grand jury review that could result in homicide charges.

Among other such Portland-area deaths:

- In 2010, Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies arrived at Boone’s Junction Pizza and Pub in Wilsonville to find a 50-year-old man lying dead in the parking lot. Lewis Allen Wilson apparently was the victim of a bar fight that spun out of control, and he died from a blow to the head. No suspect was charged.

- In 2012, a 51-year-old man struck a 59-year-old man, sending his head banging onto the pavement outside Mama Son’s Tavern near Southeast 125th Avenue and Division Street in Portland. Steven Glenn Young clung to life for three weeks in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. Bary Franklin was sentenced to 3½ years in prison.

- In October 2014, a 42-year-old homeless man cold-cocked a stranger, causing him to strike the pavement near the west end of the Burnside Bridge in Portland. The killer, Robert Lewis Browne, apparently didn’t realize he’d fatally injured the stranger, William “Cougar” Burleigh. Neither did passers-by, who rifled through the dying man’s pockets and stripped him of his pants before someone called 911 a while later. Browne was sentenced last month to six years in prison.

Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner, estimates that 80 percent of homicide victims die from gunshot wounds. That’s followed next in frequency by stabbings, then bludgeonings and strangulations.

One-punch deaths fall even further down the list. But it happens often enough that Gunson, without pause, is able to describe precisely how a sock to the face can end a life.

“They fall over backwards and they hit the back of their head,” Gunson said. “They often end up having a skull fracture.”

The impact on hard ground causes the brain to ricochet into the opposite wall of the skull, somewhere around the forehead, causing hemorrhaging near the brain and death. It’s known as a contrecoup brain injury.

Or, in cases when the victim has been drinking heavily, a punch to the face can cause an artery at the base of the brain to fatally tear as the head snaps back.

A fist to the head on Halloween night 2008 was enough to kill 38-year-old Michael Carey, despite his sizable stature: Carey was 6-foot-3 and weighed more than 300 pounds. He died from bleeding near the brain, caused as his neck twisted and his arteries tore outside KC’s Midway Bar & Grill in Oregon City.

Police couldn’t pin down which of three suspects dealt the fatal blow, and all three were acquitted of manslaughter in 2009.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that in most circumstances, causing the death of someone with a punch doesn’t amount to murder - which under Oregon law is defined as the “intentional” killing of another.

Attorneys say one-punch deaths are often charged as second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, which the law defines as causing someone else’s death “recklessly” or with “criminal negligence.” State sentencing guidelines call for a mandatory minimum sentence of about 6 years for second-degree manslaughter, but no mandatory sentence for criminally negligent homicide.

Cate Wollam, a public defender, said she thinks those lesser charges are appropriate in one-punch cases. The act doesn’t amount to murder, just because the recipient of the blow died, she said.

“This is the United States, and the facts of the case are more important than the fact that the guy died,” Wollam said.

She described one such possible scenario, in which a man slugs another for aggressively pursuing the man’s date.

“Everybody says, ‘How awful that the guy died, including the guy who punched him,” Wollam said. “If (the defendant) wanted him dead, he would have picked up something - a knife - and stabbed him.”

Oregon has no law tailored to address one-punch killings, let alone serious one-punch assaults.

For example, Oregon law doesn’t acknowledge fists as “dangerous weapons.” A “dangerous weapon” designation would allow prosecutors to seek more prison time for defendants who badly assault others, by pursuing charges of second-degree assault instead of third-degree assault.

“(T)he legislature did not intend that the bare, human hand or fist could be a dangerous weapon,” the Oregon Court of Appeals wrote in a 1975 opinion.

The appeals court explained that declaring the human fist a “dangerous weapon” would be like saying that “even the proverbial 98-pound weakling could, with one well-placed punch, disfigure a heavyweight boxing champion.”

The exception to the appeals court’s ruling might be professional boxers or other martial-arts practitioners who strike others with their hands, attorneys say.

In 2011, a 21-year-old Gresham man who put a stranger in a coma for 22 days after striking or shoving him off of a 5-foot retaining wall at a party was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. The 20-year-old victim hit his head on the sidewalk below.

He was in the hospital for four months, had surgery to remove part of his skull to relieve brain swelling and wore an eye patch after the attack because of vision problems.

The defendant reportedly struck the victim because he didn’t like how the victim had gelled his hair into a “faux hawk,” or fake mohawk.

When it comes to one-punch killers, Washington prosecutors - like those in Oregon - have grappled with some difficult questions.

After a few months of investigation, Snohomish County prosecutors said they wouldn’t pursue criminal charges against an 18-year-old man, Michael Galen, who agreed to settle a dispute over a fender-bender by punching the 18-year-old, Jarom Thomas, who was responsible for some vehicle damage.

Both teens shook hands and smoked a cigarette. Then Galen reportedly punched Thomas, causing Thomas to fall to the ground and die.

In New York, the Senate in June passed a bill that would let prosecutors seek felony manslaughter charges against defendants who killed with a punch. The bill is supported by lawmakers who were upset by the five-month jail sentence served by a 17-year-old who killed a 59-year-old grandfather outside the man’s Bronx home in June 2014.

Ildefonso Romero had walked outside his home, tried to defend a teen girl who was being harassed by a gang and suffered a fatal punch in the process, authorities say.

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Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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