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Why a Kentucky football coach faces even more charges in player's death

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When I first wrote on this site about former Louisville high school football coach Jason Stinson, indicted by a grand jury for reckless homicide for the heat-related death of one of his players after a practice, I said I didn’t think he would be convicted. Even if the evidence player-thumbshows Stinson didn’t allow his players water on a 94-degree heat-index day, or even if the evidence doesn’t prove the defense’s contention that Adderall and creatine (both can cause dehydration) contributed to the death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin (left), I just figured it would be difficult for a jury to send a coach to jail. (Stinson is believed to be the first high school coach ever to get charged in connection with a player’s overheating death.)

Then, earlier this week, I wasn’t so sure. Three weeks before his scheduled Aug. 31 trial date, and nearly one year to the day Gilpin collapsed during a Pleasure Ridge Park High preseason football practice, a grand jury came back with a second charge against Stinson: first-degree wanton endangerment.

Under Kentucky law, reckless homicide, a Class D felony, is when a person “with recklessness” causes the death of another person. First-degree wanton endangerment, also a Class D felony, is when a person “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life … wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.” I spell this out because I had never heard of wanton endangerment until this case. Presumably, the wanton endangerment charge is related to Stinson’s alleged conduct in running end-of-practice sprints in the heat while also denying his players water, accusations Stinson denies.n1604648107_131547_4523

So if a grand jury is adding charges, maybe I’m wrong in my assertion that Stinson, who has great support from many in his community and fellow football coaches (on the right is an image taken from a Stinson support Facebook page), will not be convicted, though it’s safe to say his coaching career might be done. Stinson stepped down after his first and only season after his original indictment in January).

To get a best guess of what might be going on, and with Jeffrey Toobin out of my budgetary range, I did a quick email interview with Scott C. Byrd, a Louisville criminal defense attorney who contributes to the Kentucky Court Report blog.

T/S: I see that often someone indicted for reckless homicide is also indicted for wanton endangerment. Is that what usually happens? If that’s the case, does the additional charge mean anything?

Byrd: This happens sometimes, depending on the prosecutor and the circumstances of the alleged crime. If the jury convicted on both charges, recommended the maximum five year sentence for each, and ran the sentences consecutively, the defendant could theoretically get a 10-year sentence instead of the maximum five years for the reckless homicide.

T/S: Does the additional charge give prosecutors an out in case jurors aren’t comfortable with convicting someone on reckless homicide?

Byrd: I believe that is exactly what the prosecution is thinking. Given what I’ve learned about the case, I don’t think jurors will believe Stinson caused the young man’s death. However, I do think they will be angry with his conduct if they believe he denied the kids water. If this happens, I can see a conviction for wanton endangerment and an acquittal for the reckless homicide charge.

T/S: Should we believe that the prosecution has something else up its sleeve, and that the wanton endangerment charge means it believes Stinson’s conduct was even worse than it already thought?

Byrd: I don’t think this is the case. I know all the attorneys involved, and I truly believe this is nothing more than a political move by the Commonwealth’s Attorney to avoid a high-profile acquittal. It will certainly be easier to win a conviction for wanton endangerment rather than one for reckless homicide.

So perhaps my gut instinct was correct that a jury would have trouble convicting Stinson on reckless homicide charges. There’s something very strong about that word, “homicide.” Even if every juror had an issue with a past football coach who was a dick, homicide seems like a tough yoke to hang on somebody with a whistle and a clipboard. But wanton endangerment? Yes, if Stinson denied his players water, the word “endangerment” seems to fit better. Today, Stinson’s attorneys are scheduled to ask a judge to drop the wanton endangerment charge.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Bear Bryant states he is glad the Jefferson County, Ky., prosecutor wasn’t in Junction, Texas, in 1954, even if no one dropped dead after one of most infamous, heat-scorching practices.

Written by rkcookjr

August 14, 2009 at 2:33 am