Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lethal Technique Dilemma

And yet another one punch death is reported in the press - albeit with a difference.
Tiffany Startz, 21, was charged with felony reckless conduct and battery charges in the death of John Powell, who had accepted a $5 bet to be punched in the face by Startz, police say.
This time, the death did not occur because the deceased hit their head when falling to the ground after being punched.
The impact of the punch ruptured an artery in Powell's neck, causing blood to pool around his brain and leading to his death soon after at Provena St. Joseph's Medical Center in Joliet, said Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil.
In Forensic Pathology for Forensic Scientists, Police, and Death Investigators, Joseph Prahlow explains that 'a blow to side of the head or face, with the resultant twistings or sideways flexion motion of the neck, can result in a laceration of the vertebral artery' (2010: 322).

This injury can happen. In fact, I read a forum comment discussing this case in which a contributor stated that he was taught a technique in Shotokan karate that is designed to achieve this fatal effect. This injury is rare, but it does happen.

In a previous blog titled 'Neck Holds - Lethal Weapons', I referred to Donald T. Reay, M.D. and John W. Eisele, M.D. who published an article titled 'Death from law enforcement neck holds' in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology in September 1982. In their conclusion they state:
Because of the structures involved, neck holds must be considered potentially lethal under any circumstance and used only when there is no other alternative. Use of neck holds must be viewed in the same way as firearms; the potential for a fatal outcome is present each time a neck hold is applied and each time a firearm is drawn from its holster. The neck hold differs in that its fatal consequence can be totally unpredictable. ... its use should be restricted to those situations where the officer or another person's life is in immediate danger. ... It must be viewed as a potentially fatal tactic and reserved to situations which merit its risk.
Should punches to the head be viewed as lethal techniques? The potential for a fatal outcome is present every time a punch to the head is executed, as evidenced by the weekly, if not daily, reporting of one punch deaths.

Here is the dilema. If Reay and Eisele's logic is followed, and punches to the head are viewed as being lethal techniques, then lethal force may be legitimately used to defend oneself in those circumstances. As martial arts/self defence instructors, we cannot teach one without the logical conclusion of the other. We cannot teach that a punch to the head is potentially lethal every time it is employed without the logical conclusion that the student may be fighting for their life when someone is attempting to punch them in the head. This could go against current law and be seen as excessive force.

There are many interesting aspects to this tragic case. For instance, those who advocate 'reality-based training' which involves hits to the head; is there a case to be made for them being negligent if an injury such as this occurs? Even when head protection is worn, the injury involves the movement of the head so it can occur whether head protection is worn or not. Is ignorance of the risk of this type of injury a defence? And ignorance of the effects of what is taught within the martial arts is more the rule than the exception.

If you teach that hits to the head can be potentially lethal anytime they are employed, are you morally and/or legally responsible if a student injures or kills someone who attempts to hit them in the head? Are you morally and/or legally responsible if you didn't tell a student these facts and they die after being hit in the head?
Startz's attorneys have argued the charges should be dismissed because the punch was consensual. While they have argued she was an untrained fighter whose fatal punch was a freak accident, Guy said she believes the point of the game was to demonstrate how well Startz, who had punched men at other parties, could hit
Much of the argument revolves around consent. This is a fascinating issue; one which is not as clear cut as one would initially think. Consent has to be informed. The deceased and Ms Startz would presumably have been unaware that a punch to the head can be fatal anytime it is executed. You could argue, in this case, that this fact does not effect the issue of consent, or you could argue the contrary, that you cannot consent to what you don't know.

This raises the question, in the public interest which shapes law, should the fact that punches to the head can lead to fatal outcomes be a subject of public education? Then the dilemma again. Educate the public about the possibility of fatal consequences of punches to the head implies they are fatal techniques and therefore can be defended with the use of fatal force.

Injury science is a relatively new science devoted to the study of injuries (which I have discussed in previous blogs). A maxim of injury science is that there are no accidents. The defence for Ms Startz is suggesting this was an unfortunate accident. Injury science would disagree. I wrote about the Japan Judo Accident Victim's Association campaign against judo deaths in Japanese schools in a previous blog, and a well known martial artist's comment that 'accidents happen'. Injury science would argue that accidents do not happen. Injuries happen, and there are reasons for those injuries happening; and people responsible.

I am most definitely not one of the 'I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6' macho-infused instructors. The martial arts teaches serious, life affecting tactics and techniques. Life affecting for both the student and any potential adversary. It behoves martial arts instructors to understand the consequences of their teachings. We are not teaching a sporting activity, even when we are teaching martial arts as a sport. The techniques can injury and kill, even on the mats.


  1. An excellent post. you raise some very important points. When I was a child I was taught never to hit anyone in the head (usually said in reference to fighting with my brother)because it was 'dangerous'. Now as a karateka I am taught to hit the head, do neck twists and other lethal techniques with only a passing comment on how dangerous these techniques are. There is no discussion on proportionality or the legal aspects of self-defence. I think this is a real omission in a lot of martial arts training - we are so busy being fascinated by the techniques we don't always stop to think of the real consequences are actions could bring about. This post should stop and make people think and evaluate their training.

  2. Thanks SueC. I too believe the lack of real understanding of the effects of the techniques being taught is a cause for concern. The effects being the physical, psychological, legal, and moral effects.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.