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David Jason Stinson: not guilty in high school football player's practice death

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A Louisville jury took only 90 minutes Thursday to come back with acquittals of former high school football coach David Jason Stinson, tried on charges of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment after a player, Max Gilpin, 15, collapsed during a hot August 2008 practice, then died a few days later.

I am not surprised.

I would agree with Max Gilpin’s family, who said after the trial they were glad to have his story told, and that he did not die in vain. The Stinson case, if nothing else, has caused a lot of coaches to re-examine their techniques, especially when it comes to players who are showing signs of fatigue and injury. It’s a fine line between pushing hard and too hard, and Stinson’s trial will have them thinking about where that line stands with every player. I certainly will as I coach tween-age basketball players this fall and winter.

The case, considered to the first time a coach was indicted for the practice-related death of a player, also spurred Kentucky and other states, many of which already had guidelines for practicing in the heat and handling heat-related conditions, to intensify their efforts at ensuring player safety.

The jury did not talk to reporters after the verdict, so we don’t know yet why they did not convict. Nobody knows yet if they believed testimony that surmised Gilpin was already sick, with an elevated temperature, the day of practice, and also was at a higher risk of dehydration because of his use of creatine and Adderall.

As for the prosecution, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Leland Hurlbert told the Courier-Journal he knew it would be difficult to “find a football coach guilty of a crime.”

That’s an insult to the jury.

If the state was so worried it would be difficult to convict a football coach, why didn’t it present a better case? The problem wasn’t the jury making goo-goo eyes at a football coach. The problem was that the prosecution seemed to hinge its case that only the tragedy of Max Gilpin’s death would be enough to sway a jury, because it certainly never made an airtight case that Stinson denied water and ran an unusually hard practice, the basis for the charges.

Right before the trial, the prosecution also sent signals it was in trouble by suddenly calling a grand jury to get a wanton endangerment charge — still a felony, but a weaker charge compared with reckless homicide, a way to hedge its bet that a jury would find Stinson of causing a death by giving it the option to say he merely put Max Gilpin in a position of harm. Then were was the matter of withholding 1,500 pages of evidence from the defense until the trial — evidence that the judge threw out, evidence that mostly was unfriendly to the prosecution — and then begging unsuccessfully to the judge to delay it.

Stinson isn’t out of the legal woods yet. Gilpin’s parents have a civil suit against him, the Louisville schools and others. But I wonder if the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office of Dave Stengel is out of the woods on this. Surely, someone is going to call for an investigation as to why he spent so much time and money pursuing a fruitless case. It would be a stretch to lump Stengel in with disgraced, disbarred Duke lacrosse rape case prosecutor Mike Nifong. But when you have a high-profile bomb, people are going to ask questions about why you lobbed it.

Written by rkcookjr

September 17, 2009 at 8:33 pm

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