A man who killed a young banker with a single punch in a “senseless” and “unprovoked” attack was jailed for six years in February.
This brought to the public’s attention the potentially devastating consequences that such so-called ‘one punch attacks’ can have.
Trevor Timon, 31, hit Oliver Dearlove while he and his friends were talking to a group of women in Blackheath, London, in August 2016, punching him in the side of the head sending him to the ground and knocking him out.
Mr Dearlove, 30, died hours after the attack, which happened after he struck up a friendly chat with the women, who had been out celebrating a birthday with Timon.
Timon admitted manslaughter but was cleared of murder at the Old Bailey. The anguish of Oliver Dearlove’s family and girlfriend will have been only too horribly familiar to Maxine Thompson-Curl, who lost her own son Kristian in 2011.
“Kristian was a good lad,’’ she says. “He was a footballer and a cricketer, he was very popular, he had a girlfriend, was just going on to do an electronics engineering apprenticeship; he had a nice life.’’
That life was shattered on Friday September 3 2010 when Kristian, 18, went to pick up some friends from a nightclub in Consett, County Durham.
Maxine received a phone call at 1.45am to tell her that her son was in an ambulance on his way to Dryburn Hospital, now University Hospital of North Durham.
He had been attacked in the nightclub toilets by a man who later received a 28-month jail sentence for grievous bodily harm.
When Maxine reached the hospital, a consultant took her aside to tell her that Kristian had sustained a blow to the head, was on a life support machine and had no brain activity. Kristian was then transferred to Newcastle’s RVI, but, before he made the journey, Maxine was allowed to see him.
She recalls: “I went in and he was all tubed up. He was unrecognisable. Even to this day it beggars belief that a punch can cause so much damage.’’ Surgeons at the RVI operated on Kristian.
“I was told they held very little hope for Kristian’s survival and that if he did survive he would be severely mentally and physically disabled. It was pure hell,’’ says Maxine.
The swelling returned and a second operation was necessary to remove part of Kristian’s frontal lobe. Maxine had her son baptized on the Thursday and on the Friday morning – almost a week after he had gone out to pick up his friends – the doctors told her that they were considering switching off his life support, and she was introduced to the organ donation team.
On that Friday morning, Maxine went into Kristian’s room. “He had a tear dripping down his face. I wiped the tear and he looked at me and smiled and said, `mum’. It was miraculous. The consultant said he couldn’t believe it.’’
Kristian came out of his comatose state, was moved to a high dependency unit and showed signs of remarkable recovery.
“He was okay and then there was a massive change in personality,’’ recalls Maxine. “He had no inhibitions and his behaviour was very erratic but I was told that over time that would settle down.’’
In December Kristian was sectioned and moved into a mental health unit. He was later moved to a specialist unit in Northamptonshire where he died on January 10, 2011.
A subsequent inquest into Kristian’s death returned an open verdict. Maxine and her husband Tony Curl have set up a charity, One Punch North East, to offer a drop-in advice and counselling service to families whose loved ones have been victims of violent attacks.
It was launched in 2015 on what would have been Kristian’s 23rd birthday. It has acquired a new office and drop-in centre in Sunderland.
“I’ve put all the energy and passion I’ve got into the One Punch campaign,’’ says Maxine. “I decided I had to let people know what one punch can do. I never really knew before what happened to my Kristian.”
It is a significant problem. There are no official figures on one punch deaths, but the national campaign group One Punch Can Kill has recorded more than 80 fatalities since 2007.
Sometimes the blow itself will cause fatal damage to the brain. Alternatively, it could cause a physiological response where a person stops breathing and the brain is starved of oxygen.
But in other cases, a punch will cause a person to lose consciousness and strike their head on a hard surface.
Again, the result can be death or a life-changing injury. Help is not only needed by those bereaved by a one punch assault but also – all too often – by those who survive, along with their families.
Maxine explains: “In the case of a death you have family and friends trying to cope with it and those people need help and support. Those people with a loved one who survives but will never be the same.’’
She adds: “I had very little support from anywhere when I was going through everything with Kristian. I wanted to help others and County Durham Alcohol Harm Reduction Team and Durham Constabulary contacted me about helping with an awareness campaign and that’s how it started.”
She now visits schools, probation homes, prisons workplaces, gyms, colleges and universities to raise awareness of the dangers of one punch assaults and of the potentially devastating consequences, not only for the victims and their families and friends but also for communities.
“In the last year and a half I’ve had lots of families contact me asking for support, help and advice and I’m supporting about 14 different families. Some of them are just desperate,’’ she says.
She describes how the charity is working with one young man who has learned to walk again but who still struggles with his speech. The only speech therapy he receives on the NHS is 30 minutes every two weeks.
Meanwhile, funding for other rehab is strained, since criminal injuries compensation can take two and half to three years to be paid, beyond the window in which therapy can be at its most effective.
Maxine is also providing help to one Tyneside mother whose son was in a coma in nearby Sunderland but who couldn’t afford the fares to visit him. One Punch North East has stepped in, offering funds and transport.
One Punch North East works closely with local pubs and clubs and primary care trusts. It also plans to work in partnership with the Prince’s Trust. It is launching a petition calling for a review of the law in terms of how it relates to one punch assaults. This has the backing of four MPs.
“It’s not just a country-wide problem, it’s worldwide,’’ says Maxine. “It’s all about awareness, it’s all about not punching out but walking away.”
A one punch attack can have devastating consequences. Nitin Mukerji, consultant neuro-surgeon at Teesside’s James Cook Hospital explains why.
A severe blow to the head, whether from a punch or not, essentially jolts the brain, which is floating inside the skull in a cerebrospinal fluid, explains Mr Mukerji.
A severe impact – such as from a punch – to the face, can send the brain rocking two and fro, hitting the rear and then front of the skull.
“As a consequence, what might seem a small enough injury to the face, has essentially caused injury to the front and back and all the nerves and the nerve fibre tracts in between have been jolted and sheared,’’ says Mr Mukerji.
“Therefore the consequences can be quite catastrophic.” If the victim falls to the ground, those consequences can be so much worse. ”The brain of a six-foot person falling to the ground in a second or so will be subject to considerable acceleration causing further jolting.
“Therefore the injury is exceptionally severe,” adds Mr Mukerji. “Once everything is swollen that then leads to a vicious circle; the brain pressures rise, the heart struggles to pump blood into the brain, then the bruises to the brain swell up, the pressure increases and it can cause death.”
Even in non-fatal cases, much damage can be done, which may not be immediately apparent.
“If, for example, someone was punched on the face, it’s the frontal lobes of the brain that are impacted directly and these control the emotions and feelings. So you can get people whose personality changes, whereby they can’t concentrate, they are not able to sit still, they get angry, they can’t settle and keep a job, friendships and relationships suffer and a lot of consequences can happen.”
Some damage can be permanent and recovery comes slowly, taking up to two years. This calls for supportive treatment such as cognitive and behavioural therapy.
Mr Mukerji adds: “A punch is not as innocuous as it seems. This is happening to young people, the most productive people in our society and we really ought not to lose them. In my career I’ve seen lots of young lives lost as a consequence of this and it is really sad to see.”
To donate to One Punch North East go to onepunchnortheast.org.uk/donate