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Kentucky football coach's reckless homicide trial set to begin

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player-thumbAs I write this, it’s the night before the Aug. 31 Louisville, Ky., trial of former Pleasure Ridge Park High football coach David Jason Stinson. He is charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the practice-related death last year of one his players, Max Gilpin, 15. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is the first time anyone knows of that a coach has been indicted for the death of a player under his charge for something that happened in a practice or game.

I’ve also said this before, and I’ll say it again: I would be shocked if Stinson gets convicted.

The Jefferson County prosecutor got a grand jury indictment on the reckless homicide charge in January, and he recently added wanton endangerment, another felony, in the last month. Reckless homicide means Stinson’s actions caused a death. Wanton endangerment means Stinson’s actions put a person in a position of danger, which is a charge that could be brought even if someone doesn’t die. Stinson pleaded not guilty to both.

The prosecutor’s case is based mainly on witness testimony that the first-year coach ran his players hard on a day when the heat index hit 94 degrees, hard so he could, by his own statement, literally run them off the team. More importantly, witnesses testified that Stinson denied his players water — an especially key fact when a player overheats to a body temperature of 107 degrees and is declared dead three days later of septic shock.

My feeling that Stinson, no matter how much of a dick he might have been during that fateful Aug. 20, 2008, practice, will be found innocent rests on some nagging questions I have about the prosecution’s case. I’ve followed the case, talked to a Louisville defense lawyer and read court reports posted by the Louisville Courier-Journal, but I have no other special insight that leads me to this conclusion. It’s just a gut feel based on some of the nagging questions I have about the case.

Most of them surround this question: why was no autopsy ever performed? And if it were performed, would septic shock still be declared the cause of death? An autopsy might have explained why Gilpin died, and why the worst that happened to the rest of the team was one other player spending two days in the hospital for overheating.

n1604648107_131547_4523One of the big guns Stinson’s defense is pulling out is former Kentucky medical examiner George Nichols, who said he believes Gilpin’s overheating was due not to a lack of water but to Adderall, an ADHD drug that contains an amphetamine that can cause overheating. Plus, Gilpin’s father, Jeff, admitted his son has used creatine, which can cause overheating, though Jeff Gilpin said his son stopped using it a month before practice. Furthermore, in a deposition for his (and Gilpin’s mother’s) civil lawsuits regarding the player’s death, Max Gilpin’s father testified he did not hear Stinson or any other coach deny players water.

All of these things, in a case predicated on Gilpin being reckless because he denied players water, don’t look good for the prosecution.

Neither do a few other recent developments:

– The addition of the wanton endangerment charge. That’s an indication the prosecution is starting to worry that it can’t get a conviction for reckless homicide (actually causing the death) and wants to hedge itself in a high-profile case with something that seems more easily provable (putting someone in a position of danger).

– The defense just receiving the county coroner’s report declaring Gilpin’s death “accidental.” The prosecuting attorney’s office is defending  turning over that report only at the end of last week, saying it also only just received it. Stinson’s defense team took the opportunity to respond that not only did the coroner call Gilpin’s death an accident, but also that the prosecution’s usual expert in these matters also said Adderall was the contributing factor. (The prosecution said there wasn’t scientific evidence to back up that contention.)

By the way, my idiot self isn’t the only one saying Stinson stands a good chance of going free. Nine criminal-law specialists interviewed by the Courier-Journal say the same thing. From the Courier-Journal:

Regardless of the trial’s result, Stinson’s prosecution is likely to make coaches more cautious in pushing players on hot summer days, athletic trainers and lawyers say. But persuading the jury to convict the coach will be difficult, legal experts say. …

If the experts can’t agree on what killed Max, the legal authorities say, then the defense will have a much easier time persuading the jury that it can’t be certain that Stinson is criminally responsible for his player’s death.

The lawyers — four of them former prosecutors — also say it will be difficult to prove that Stinson ignored an “ “unjustifiable risk of death” — a required element of reckless homicide — given there were no other deaths among the thousands of other student-athletes who practiced that same afternoon in Jefferson County.

“There is a theory that if the prosecution needs to rely on an expert at all, it loses,” said former federal prosecutor Kent Wicker. “If there is a dispute between experts, that’s a strong argument for reasonable doubt.”

The lawyers — four of them former prosecutors — also say it will be difficult to prove that Stinson ignored an “unjustifiable risk of death” — a required element of reckless homicide — given there were no other deaths among the thousands of other student-athletes who practiced that same afternoon in Jefferson County.

“The classic example of reckless homicide is firing a gun into a crowded building and killing somebody,” said defense lawyer Steve Romines of Louisville. “Having kids run wind sprints doesn’t equate to that.”

It can be argued that if Stinson’s indictment only makes coaches (including the ones helping to fund his legal defense) more aware of their players’ welfare during practice, and keeps them from going overboard into Junction Boys-style excesses, then something positive has come out of this. Kentucky’s legislature this year mandated that all 12,000 high school coaches take courses in heat safety. If Stinson ever coaches again, you can be sure (if he has any brain cells at all) that he’ll back off some of the tough-guy schtick that suddenly looks bad when said in the presence of a court stenographer.

However, as tragic as Gilpin’s death is, and as awful as his parents must feel trying to make sense of it and find some way to make it whole, it also is awful if a Stinson had to suffer through this grind for no reason. I predict that not only will Stinson be found innocent, but that prosecuting attorney R. David Stengel — who himself used the comparison of shooting into a crowded building to justify the indictment, and who backed away from charges against another scandal-scarred coach, Louisville’s Rick Pitino — is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

After a player's death, taking heat more seriously

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player-thumbLast Aug. 20, on an afternoon in which the heat index reached 94, 15-year-old Max Gilpin (right) collapsed with a 107-degree temperature after running sprints at the end of a preseason high school football practice in Louisville, Ky. Three days later, he died.

This was rare, this was tragic, but this was not unheard of. According to a report compiled for the American Football Coaches Association, there were 114 heat stroke-related deaths at all levels of football from 1960 to 2007. What’s most notable about Gilpin’s death is what happened to the coach, Jason Stinson of Pleasure Ridge Park High, who ordered him to run those gassers. Stinson, later relieved of his coaching duties, goes on trial Aug. 31 on a criminal charge of reckless homicide. He is believed to be the first coach indicted because of a player’s death in practice. (Stinson, some assistants and administrators, and Louisville’s school district are being sued by Gilpin’s divorced parents.)

Sad to say, it’s not Gilpin’s death that has suddenly has brought out a lot of worry about making sure players can handle heat, including today’s release of guidelines from the National Athletic Trainers Association designed to ease players into shape during the heat through limits on first-days practices, rather than whipping them into shape right away. It’s the possibility Stinson could be serving hard time — and that the principals, superintendents and, yes, trainers, are going to get dragged down in their wake. That’s why football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson.

Most state high school athletic associations, including Kentucky’s, eevn before Gilpin’s death had standards on handling heat, including recommendations on water breaks. (A key part of the Stinson case is whether the coach refused his players water breaks the day Gilpin collapsed.)

But after Gilpin, in many states those standards are being re-examined. Meanwhile, in Kentucky it’s now state law that at least one person attending a high school practice or game must have completed a 10-hour course on handling emergencies, including heat stroke.

It might look unseemly and disrespectful that football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson. Surely, they have self-preservation in mind. On the other hand, any youth coach is now going to be worried, rightfully, that they will be held liable for anything untoward that happens under their watch. What happens if I’m coaching one of my kids’ basketball teams, and someone collapses? Is it my fault? I don’t run my practices like Bear Bryant’s infamous Junction Boys camp.

But if Stinson gets convicted, I could face the very real risk of being charged myself if something horrible happened on my watch. After all, aren’t I supposed to know my players’ medical condition, or how hard I should push them? You know how many times I’ve gotten medical information on kids in four years of coaching? Zero.

That’s probably not going to happen, whatever Stinson’s fate. Though it’s not helping Stinson’s case that his old employer, the Jefferson County Public Schools, appears to be stonewalling the prosecution by being excruciatingly slow in turning over its own report on Gilpin’s death. (The school district collected the health forms for Gilpin, and would have been the ones to tell Stinson that he was taking Adderall, which can accelerate dehydration. However, it would not have known about Gilpin’s use of creatine, which also can accelerate dehydration.)

Actually, I highly doubt Stinson will get convicted. Just a hunch. But if nothing else, the threat of Stinson’s conviction — much more than Max Gilpin’s death — will get coaches and administrators to take a closer look at making sure that everyone is wiser in the heat.

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