Soccer Ref Dies After Being Assaulted – Possible Murder Charge?

A 46 year old Utah soccer referee recently died after being assaulted by a 17 year old player in a recreational soccer league. The 17 year old disagreed with the referee’s issuance of a yellow car and showed his displeasure by punching  the ref one time in the head. The ref initially complained of being dizzy, but the ref’s health progressivley declined as he was transported to the hospital, slipped into a coma and died. The juvenile was taken to a detention facility after being charged with Aggravated Assault.

Pennsylvania Murder Charge

In this case, the teenager obviously made a huge error in judgment by punching the ref in the head, but I doubt that anyone could have predicted that the one punch would cause a serious bodily injury yet alone constitute a fatal blow. The ref’s family suffered a huge loss, and the prosecution is going to punish the juvenile for his actions.

Had this incident occurred in Pennsylvania, I believe that the young man could be charged with second degree Murder. Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2501, a person can be guilty of Homicide if he “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being.” Section 2502 of the Crimes Code provides that a person commits second degree Murder if the homicide occurs while the defendant is committing a felony. This Murder charge basically requires two things: 1) victim died; 2) while the defendant was engaged in committing a felony. Clearly, the referee died based upon the assault that occurred, so the issue becomes whether or not the assault was a felony. If the juvenile could be charged with Aggravated Assault, a felony offense, then he could also be charged with Murder.

The elements of Aggravated Assault would require the district attorney to prove that the defendant either intended to cause or recklessly caused serious bodily injury, or the district attorney could prove that the person intended to cause or recklessly caused bodily injury to a special class of persons. The Aggravated Assault law, found at 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702, provides a list of persons that are given special protections based upon their jobs, such as police, firemen, judges, and employees of schools. Had this referee been working a game for a school, I believe that he would have been a protected person, which means that the juvenile could readily be charged with Aggravated Assault. However, since the referee was working for a recreational league, I do not believe that he would fall under the special protection provisions.

Can One Punch be Aggravated Assault?

Since the ref most likely was not a protected person, the prosecution would need to prove that the juvenile intended to cause or recklessly caused a serious bodily injury. As an Aggravated Assault defense attorney, I cited to the case of Commonwealth v. Roche many times over the years for its holding in an Aggravated Assault case that one punch would not support an Aggravated Assault charge. In 2010, in the case of Commonwealth v. Burton, the  Pennsylvania Superior Court overruled Roche and held that one punch, depending upon the facts and circumstances, can justify an Aggravated Assault charge. The Burton Court noted factors such as the disparate size, age and strength between the victim and the defendant, the fact that the defendant was not prepared to be struck and was thereby “sucker punched,” and taunting the victim after the injury all weigh in favor of an Aggravated Assault charge.

The online article mentions that the 46 year old referee was struck by a much younger and stronger 17 year old, and it also implied that the referee was sucker punched. In my opinion, the prosecution could file a felony charge of Aggravated Assault in this case and thereby could also file a charge of Murder in the second degree. While the prosecution could file the charges, I believe that an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to successfully argue that the juvenile did not intend to cause serious bodily injury. The juvenile would readily be convicted of Simple Assault, a misdemeanor offense and be punished accordingly.

On a personal level, I feel compassion for the family of the referee as he lost his life while doing something he loved and giving back to his community. However, I also would hate to see a young man be sentenced to a lengthy time in prison and carrying a Murder conviction for life based upon one punch.