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Just how deadly can one punch be? Family fights for legislation after man killed at Nowhere Bar

"Nothing like this should ever happen to another human being ever again."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just months after his wedding, Nick Clark answered a call no one wants to receive.

"There was a horrible accident at Nowhere Bar and Christopher was involved," Clark said.

Clark's husband, Christopher McKinney, was taken to University of Louisville (UofL) Hospital after an altercation at a bar in the Highlands. When Clark arrived, he was told his husband would not survive. Gathering with family and friends, Clark stood by McKinney's side in his final minutes.

"It was just such a surreal moment," Clark said. "It's just embedded in my mind."

According to his autopsy report, McKinney died from "blunt force injuries of the head sustained in an assault." He was punched just once by a Louisville bouncer.

While the evidence that one punch can kill is indisputable, the bouncer was never charged in McKinney's death. Now, his family and local leaders are pushing to make sure something like this never happens again.

What happened to Christopher McKinney?

Nick Clark met Christopher McKinney in the summer of 2016.

"We had a few dates scheduled and I think I was just really nervous, so I canceled the first couple of dates...then we finally met at Ceviche one night in August of 2016 and just immediately hit it off," Clark said.

They dated for three years, tying the knot in October 2019.

"It was literally the best day of our lives," Clark said. "The wedding was amazing, so many family and friends there to support us — and then three months later, this tragic accident happened and he was gone."

On Jan. 5, 2020, an intoxicated McKinney was removed from Nowhere Bar for what LMPD called "unruly behavior." On the way out, he got into a scuffle with the bouncer. 

In an interview with police, the bouncer admitted to punching McKinney in the head one time. 

"I just remember seeing him swinging around and then going for the punch...and then that's just when I reacted," the bouncer said.

McKinney was knocked unconscious. First responders tried to resuscitate him on scene as he went into cardiac arrest.

Though McKinney was later taken to UofL Hospital's trauma center, retired Louisville neurosurgeon Dr. Gregory Nazar said he did not stand a chance without surgery minutes after the incident.

"Within an hour and half to two hours after that punch, Christopher is brain dead," Nazar said. "You can keep his heart going, his lungs with artificial means, but the brain is already died."

Nazar reviewed McKinney's records to explain what happened to him in the minutes and seconds following the punch.

"The brain suddenly rotates and many things happen — you shut off the cerebral blood flow to the brain, lose the regulation to the blood flow, cause tears to the blood vessels and arteries in and around the brain and you also induce a severe brain swelling," Nazar said. "All of these things happen rapidly."

While he has treated similar head injuries over the course of his career, Nazar said a death like McKinney's should never have happened.

"In the United States, [there's] probably 50 to 75 cases a year — doesn't seem like a lot, but keep in mind, these are all young people in their 20s and 30s," Nazar said. "They're all healthy individuals and it's totally preventable."

Medical professionals understand one punch can cause serious, deadly injuries. In countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Nazar said a case like McKinney's would lead to a manslaughter charge. In the United States, it led to nothing.

"Why was this allowed to happen and nothing be done about it? Makes no sense to me," Nazar said. "Absolutely none."

Why were there no charges?

Police treated the incident as a death investigation, turning over their findings to the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office days after McKinney died. 

LMPD provided WHAS11 with a statement which reads in part:

"LMPD’s Homicide Unit took all essential and relevant measures to provide a comprehensive and accurate depiction of the events to have occurred. These findings were presented to the reviewing party, the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney, Tom Wine, whose office determined the case to be a justifiable homicide."

Three months after receiving the police investigation, Wine announced his office would not be filing criminal charges against the bouncer responsible for McKinney's death. 

"Over the last year and a half, I've been trying to do everything I can to scream for justice because this was so, this was…so wrong on so many levels," Clark said.

Despite multiple surgeons noting the dangers of what "one punch" could cause, particularly while the victim is intoxicated, Wine said a homicide charge could not be justified

"We have to look at what is the likelihood that the assailant, in this case the bouncer, engaged in conduct that he believed could cause death or serious physical injury," Wine said. "The statute is clear that a person can respond with physical force if a person is pushing them, if a person is rearing back to hit them, if somebody threatens to hit, the other person can respond with physical force. And...that's what the bouncer did in this case. He punched. He punched one time and hit above the left eye."

Clark has asked why Wine's office did not let a grand jury decide if the bouncer should be charged. WHAS11 took the request to Wine.

"Because I believe I have an ethical obligation to present evidence to a grand jury where I have a reasonable expectation that we're going to be able to convict," Wine said.

Wine pointed to obstacles in the way of charges, including the bouncer's intent when he hit McKinney, the statute on self-defense and a lack of physical evidence — including a report from a pathologist who called the death a "freak accident."

"We look at it from the expectation that what [does] the general public think about these type of things? What does the individual who's using the force think about it? And if they don't expectation that they're going to cause a death, we're not going to be able to prove that," Wine said.

Another hurdle for Wine's office, LMPD did not execute search warrants, including obtaining surveillance video and a toxicology sample from the bouncer.

"If you have a warrant and you don't execute that warrant properly, then that's evidence I don't have," Wine said. "If the evidence is missing, we're screwed."

WHAS11 asked LMPD about the breakdown in evidence collection. They responded with a statement the reads in part:

“A search warrant was drawn up and signed by a judge for a living forensic examination of the suspect. The warrant allowed for the collection of biological samples to be tested by a certified lab if it was deemed relevant to the investigation. Based upon both information received from the investigation and direct observations by the investigator and the department’s consulting physician, this test was not deemed essential and therefore not conducted.

In relation to videos not being collected, LMPD attempted to obtain video footage on numerous occasions. The case file’s investigative letter, which documents these attempts, was provided to the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney, Tom Wine. The letter clearly states that LMPD made “multiple attempts” to collect video from the establishment “with no success.” Further, based upon the detective’s initial observations at the scene, it does not seem likely the club’s video would have captured the incident. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office is aware of the issues surrounding the collection of video evidence, as it is cited in a lawsuit that has been filed by the victim’s spouse. The lawsuit compelled the owner of the Nowhere Bar to provide available and relevant video to the plaintiff/spouse. LMPD does not have any record of the plaintiff/spouse attempting to provide the department with video footage to see if this would alter the ruling of this case."

Clark claims the prosecutors and police never took his husband's case seriously, never pushed for proof of wrongdoing. Wine, though, said that "proof" doesn't exist. 

"It’s a tragedy but it wasn't one we could anticipate, and it wasn't one that even if we had all of the evidence, we could overcome the legal impediments that we had in this case," Wine said.

Even then, he agrees this case can and should be lesson. 

What change can come from this tragedy?

In an effort to prevent another person from receiving the same call he did, Clark is pushing for legislative change.

"Christopher's Law" would require bars to use a standardized application and hiring process, asking the state's department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to develop and enforce regulations that bouncers and bars would have to follow, including training.

"Right now there are no training standards, there are no hiring standards, for someone to get a job as a bouncer," state Rep. Lisa Willner said. "Its really important that that any employee that can use force on people is trained to do it safely." 

That training would highlight expertise on de-escalation and what medical professionals already know: one hit can be deadly.

"Bouncers are typically used to intimidate, and while they may be important to keeping the peace, it's really important that any employee who can use force on people is trained to do it safely," Willner said.

The proposed legislation was discussed in the previous session, but will be brought back up again for consideration this year.

"Nothing like this should ever happen to another human being ever again," Clark said.

RELATED: Wrongful death lawsuit filed against Nowhere Bar after man's death

RELATED: Digging deeper: FOCUS team looks into crime data at Nowhere Bar

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