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Martial arts fighter exonerated in Oak Harbor man's death
The Island County prosecutor said Thursday that no charges will be filed in connection with the Nov. 17, 2012 death of Christopher Cooper in downtown Oak Harbor.
Cooper’s father, Terry Cooper, a Clinton resident, said he hopes that outrage over the case will lead to changes in state law to protect people from trained fighters.
Prosecutor Greg Banks concluded after “an exhaustive analysis” of all the evidence, including an iPhone video recording made by the victim, that Oak Harbor resident Jason Ellis, 29, a mixed martial arts champion, acted in lawful self defense when he struck Cooper, causing the fatal injury.
Christopher Cooper, 23, was an Oak Harbor resident. He was found unconscious in a parking lot of Whidbey Furniture early in the morning. He suffered a severe head injury and later died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
The case made regional headlines after Oak Harbor police arrested Ellis last year, in defiance of the prosecutor’s office advice that it was a case of self defense. The prosecutor quickly released Ellis from jail without charges.
Cooper’s family and friends on Whidbey Island, and also Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, were upset that Ellis wasn’t charged.
Banks said last year that he would withhold final judgment in the case until all the evidence was collected. Since then, police conducted an extensive investigation. Banks received the complete medical records from Harborview and the autopsy report. He discussed the findings with the King County medical examiner and Island County Coroner Robert Bishop.
Banks said the evidence shows Cooper was the aggressor and Ellis first tried to defuse the situation before resorting to violence. Rumors that Ellis beat Cooper after he fell to the ground are false.
“The weight of the evidence shows that Mr. Ellis delivered only one punch,” Banks said.
Oak Harbor Police Chief Ed Green previously said he hoped the detectives could gather enough evidence in the case to convince Banks to file charges. Friday, he said he “stands by the prosecutor’s decision.”
Banks said he talked to Cooper’s family this week and sent a press release explaining his decision.
“The fact that this is not a criminal case does not minimize the tragedy of the young Mr. Cooper’s death,” he said. “My decision is the result of a careful analysis of the law in Washington and a thorough evaluation of the evidence gathered in the police investigation.”
According to Banks, Cooper was at the Element nightclub prior to the incident. He got into a scuffle with a woman earlier in the evening and was subdued by bouncers, according to Banks.
The following is the sequence of events, according to Banks’ press release: Cooper left the club on foot at about 2 a.m. and followed Ellis; the two men were both at the club that night, but there’s no evidence they interacted.
Cooper made a video recording of his pursuit on his phone and whispered that he was going to harm “this guy.”
Ellis tried to defuse the situation, saying he had “no beef” with him. Cooper placed the phone in his pocket just before the fight.
The actual physical fight appeared to last for less than five seconds. Ellis can be heard swearing and saying, “We ain’t got beef. That’s how we lay it!”
Ellis ran off.
A newspaper delivery driver discovered Cooper in the parking lot about eight minutes later.
Two days after the incident, Ellis called the police. He said he heard about Cooper’s injuries and felt he may be responsible.
“Mr. Ellis described the initial interaction between the two men, and said that Mr. Cooper took a swing at him and missed,” Banks wrote. “Mr. Ellis said he then quickly punched Mr. Cooper once in the head with a right hook. He stated that he fled because he was concerned that Mr. Cooper’s friend might be on his way there to fight, and was concerned Cooper may have had a weapon.”
Banks said Cooper looked battered at the hospital, but that was the result of “invasive brain and skull surgery, which resulted in facial swelling and discolorations.”
Banks said the injuries were consistent with a single punch.
“My consultation with the forensic pathologist at the King County Medical Examiner’s office led me to the conclusion that Mr. Cooper was likely struck one time in the head, which rendered him unconscious. An accelerated, unbroken fall to the pavement likely resulted in a second brain injury,” he wrote.
Banks said Washington is a “stand your ground state,” which means a person doesn’t have an obligation to run from a fight. Under state law, the prosecutor would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ellis did not act in self defense in order to convict him of manslaughter.
Banks said Ellis’ martial arts training does not limit his ability to defend himself, though such training can be a factor in cases involving excessive violence.
Terry Cooper said that is was clearly a case of excessive violence. He claims Ellis’ hand was bruised black from the punch.
“The blow was so severe that it killed Chris,” he said. “That is excessive.”
Terry Cooper said trained fighters like Ellis should be held to a higher standard and believes an MMA fighter’s hands and feet are as dangerous as a handgun.
“An MMA fighter can take a hit by someone who’s not a trained fighter and not even feel it,” he said. “He should have taken the hit and walked away.”
Cooper said he hopes the case will compel lawmakers to consider a law that would hold trained fighters accountable for violence unleashed on the unsuspecting public.