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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.

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Written by rkcookjr

September 17, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Update on the Stinson trial: Are the jurors watching "The Biggest Loser"?

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player-thumbOn Thursday, the jury is scheduled to start deliberating the case of David Jason Stinson, on trial in Louisville on reckless homicide and wanton endangerment charges in the August 2008 death of one of his players. 15-year-old Max Gilpin, who died three days after overheating at one of Stinson’s Pleasure Ridge Park High School practices. I would say, as said numerous times before the trial, that the chances of convicting Stinson are slim. Not that it has anything to do with the trial, but those thoughts intensified after watching a recent episode of a weight-loss show that featured people getting yelled at and collapsing of heat stroke.

You can go to the site of Stinson’s hometown Louisville Courier-Journal for the best blow-by-blow coverage, including video archives and live testimony. In my never-earned-a-JD legal opinion, the prosecution’s presentation created plenty of reasonable doubt, with discussion about how Gilpin had a viral infection the day of the fateful practice that had already elevated his body temperature, as well as discussion about his use of Adderall and creatine, which can accelerate dehydration.

Then there was the county coroner saying he never performed an autopsy because he didn’t see any “malfeasance,” with the coroner and investigators saying this was the first homicide case they could remember where an autopsy hadn’t been performed. (The official ruling is that Gilpin died of septic shock.) Also, the lead investigator said he never talked to any medical professionals. Meanwhile, players testified that while Stinson ran a tough practice in 94-degree heat-index conditions, he did allow water breaks and didn’t time the end-of-practice wind sprints that immediately preceded Gilpin’s collapse — that is, he allowed players to run them at their own pace, an unusual move when a coach is having players run gassers.

To me, these creates plenty of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, which is based on the assertion that Stinson denied his players water breaks in the heat, and thus created the conditions for Gilpin’s death. Not enough reasonable doubt for the judge to uphold a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. But I would be shocked if Stinson got sent to jail.

The case is getting a lot of attention because it’s the first time, that anyone knows of, a coach has been charged for the practice- or game-related death of player. It also has many coaches and organizations, legitimately, looking over their policies about heat safety, medical disclosures and emergency treatment. But it also has coaches at every level fearing whether pushing players to their physical limits is a criminal act.

You don’t have to be a hard-ass to do that — it’s what coaches, such as myself, often do. Sometimes you have players run a little extra to get their attention. You have them do it to get in shape. You have them do it because you want to know how far your players can go, and you want to show them how far they can go if they push themselves. Do some coaches go overboard with it? Oh, yeah. Was Stinson being kind of a dick saying, before Gilpin collapsed, he wasn’t going to stop having the players run until somebody quit? Oh, yeah. But being a dick by its ownself isn’t a crime.

I was thinking of Stinson when I watched Tuesday night’s premiere of the NBC weight-loss reality show, “The Biggest Loser.” Now its eighth season, regular watchers know what’s coming: morbidly obese people pushed beyond what they believe is their physical limits in the name of losing weight and getting healthy. The show’s trainers, particuarly Jillian Michaels, have built brand names out of being tough-as-nails, no-excuses coaches to the show’s contestants.

Two moments in the show had me wondering whether the jurors watched the show, and what they thought. The first came when one of the contestants collapsed near the end of a mile walk/run, which the contestants were told to do before they had even met their trainers. Contestant Tracey Yukich collapsed about 100 yards short of the finish line, saying her legs had turned to jelly. A medic arrived, but instead of treating her right away, he and the other contestants dragged her to the finish for the purported reason that she would have been so disappointed had she not made it. After she “finished,” Yukich’s eyes started rolling to the back of her head, and she was unresponsive. A helicopter had to be called to the scene, and Yukich had to spent the rest of the week in the hospital.

The cause of her problems, which were not mentioned on the show: heat stroke. In many ways, Yukich’s situation was a lot like the way Gilpin’s collapse was described. And like at that practice, Yukich wasn’t whisked off right away — at first there seemed to be some confusion and disbelief that prevented a rush to treatment. And this was on a show packed with medical staff, not a high school football team that may or may not have a trainer present.

You can fault “The Biggest Loser” producers for possibly being the ones who wanted to see Yukich cross the finish line. After all, in a show predicated upon the conceit that even the fattest among us can push ourselves physically, nothing would send America back to Ding Dongs as watching a contestant die before reaching the end of a workout. While I know the producers have a storyline to push, I also know that nothing would get the show canceled faster than someone dying, period. But as to the argument that Stinson and the other coaches didn’t react quickly enough — well, it appears few ever do, even when they have the training to do so.

The second moment on “The Biggest Loser” that had me thinking of Stinson was the relationship between trainer Jillian Michaels and 476-pound Shay Sorrells, the heaviest contestant ever. Michaels has built a lucrative brand off of being a hard-ass, and she was screaming at Sorrells when she quit in the middle of a workout. Now Sorrells is a troubled soul who was in foster care most of her childhood because of a heroin-addicted mother, and at 476 pounds she was being put through a workout that would have a lot of fit people heaving. But Michaels was yelling, calling her a quitter, saying it was time to stop being the victim. There was no mercy.

Funny thing is, the tough-as-nails approach appeared to work. After Michaels ignored Sorrells while she had a good cry outside, Sorrells came back in and finished the workout.

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I’m not going to argue whether Michaels was right in yelling at Sorrells as a means of inspiration. But millions of people, perhaps including Stinson jury members, watch “The Biggest Loser.” Even if they were never yelled at by a football coach, they’re familiar with trainers and coaches who push, cajole, and, yes, yell, as a means of inspiration and drawing out the best in somebody. “The Biggest Loser” is as mainstream as it gets.

Knowing that, it’s hard for me to believe that jurors are going to look at Stinson’s contact and see anything unusual. Does that mean everything he did was all right? Probably not. In the end, Max Gilpin’s death is going to go down as a tragedy that was more about the unique circumstances of a child’s health doing a certain activity on a certain day than it is a referendum on whether coaches should tone it down. If nothing else, Stinson’s trial is causing coaches to re-examine what they do; I know I will. But it won’t send Stinson to prison.

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.

As the Stinson turns (barely)

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David Jason Stinson, he of the reckless-homicide-charged-and-being-sued-former-football-coach-whose-player-died-of-dehydration-days-after-running-gassers-at-a-hot-preseason-practice David Jason Stinsons, appeared in court in Louisville, Ky., today for a pretrial conference in his criminal case.

Nothing happened.

As the Stinson turns, latest edition

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According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Jefferson County school district is investigating allegations of retaliation against Pleasure Ridge Park High football players who spoke to police after last August’s death of teammate Max Gilpin.

Gilpin was the 15-year-old who died a few days after collapsing in practice after Coach David Jason Stinson forced the team to run “gassers” in a heat index of 94 degrees after he was displeased with their effort. Stinson has pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide charges in a rare case of a coach being held criminally liable for an athlete’s death. His trial is scheduled to begin in August. Stinson, as well as the school district and other coaches, is being sued by Gilpin’s parents in a wrongful death case. Stinson is no longer Pleasure Ridge Park’s football coach.

From the C-J:

Superintendent Sheldon Berman said [April 24] that he has asked Joe Burks, assistant superintendent of high schools, to look into the allegations.

Berman said he has not received any complaints but was asked about the matter during a deposition last week in a lawsuit filed by Max’s parents, Michele Crockett and Jeff Gilpin.

“As soon as I got back (to the office), I instructed my staff to investigate,” he said.

If there is retaliation against students, Berman said it would be “completely inappropriate.”

“It should not even be a topic for discussion,” he said. “No student should be harassed in any way for what they told the police.”

The Courier-Journal has received several calls from PRP parents who said their children were being retaliated against because of the statements they gave police. They asked not to be named.

The story doesn’t mention exactly what kind of retaliation is being meted out, and exactly who is meting it out to exactly whom, by name at least.

There also are conflicting statements about whether fundraising for Stinson’s legal defense is happening on school grounds.

Several other parents who have contacted the newspaper said they are concerned that fundraising is being done during school hours to raise money for Stinson’s defense and that their children are being encouraged to wear T-shirts supporting Stinson.

Lauren Roberts, spokeswoman for the district, said yesterday that neither PRP nor the district has received any complaints from parents about fundraising.

[Principal David] Johnson “has advised me that there are no fundraising activities occurring on school property or during school hours,” Roberts said in an e-mail.

She said that earlier in the school year “there was a youth recreation league that sold T-shirts after school in support of the coach, but Mr. Johnson stopped that.”

Turning down the heat in Kentucky — more Gilpin death aftermath

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As reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Medical Association’s committee on sports medicine met Thursday to discuss what coaches should do in case of a heat-related illness suffered by a player. The meeting happened the same week Kentucky Gov. Steve Brashear signed a bill requiring high school coaches to take a 10-hour course taught by a doctor or another qualified professional on health safety issues, such as recognizing emergencies, first aid, and signs of heat- and cold-related conditions. Not every coach technically has to take and complete the class, but every high school athletic practice and game must be attended by at least one person who has.

This is the outgrowth of the death last August of 15-year-old Max Gilpin of Louisville after he collapsed during a hot Pleasure Ridge Park High School football practice. Former coach David Jason Stinson has pleaded not guilty to a charge of reckless homicide and is among the many being sued by Gilpin’s parents over his death. The criminal trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 31, with some coaches and coaching associations giving money to Stinson’s legal defense in fear of what a conviction would mean for their jobs.

The Kentucky bill originally proposed that ice baths and defibrillators be available at every practice, but that was dropped because of schools’ concerns on costs and physicians’ concerns that those devices aren’t always the best course of immediate treatment.

As the Stinson turns

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A lot has happened since the last time we discussed David Jason Stinson, the Louisville high school football coach facing criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit after one of his players, Max Gilpin, collapsed in practice and died.

To summarize what’s happened in the last month, ever since Stinson refused to answer questions at his deposition for the civil lawsuit:

Feb. 16: Pleasure Ridge Park High School principal David Johnson, Stinson’s boss and a former football coach at the school, didn’t do himself or his football coach any favors by saying during his deposition that he never investigated what happened during that fateful Aug. 20, 2008, practice — bad enough, except he emailed one parent that he had conducted a “thorough investigation.” He also said he deleted any parent emails because they appeared to be “hate mail” — even though, as the aforementioned sentence shows, he responded to messages from parents describing what they saw and heard at that football practice. Finally, Johnson said athletic director Craig Webb didn’t tell him about Gilpin’s collapse until 18 hours after it happened. Webb told the school district athletic director, as is protocol. Gilpin died of septic shock on Aug. 23, three days after his collapse. (Full deposition, thanks to the Louisville Courier-Journal, is here.)

Feb. 19: Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman says his office will look at how Johnson handled the Gilpin incident. “[W]e’re studying the deposition and working with him on some of the issues,” he said. One issue: trying to recover the emails Johnson deleted. However, Berman also told the Courier-Journal that the district began investigating the Gilpin case two days after it happened, and that information it gathered contradicts other accounts of Stinson and his assistants denying players water and running them excessively on a day the heat index hit 94.

Feb. 22: A Louisville judge approves adding Johnson, Webb and assistant football coach Josh Lightle as defendents in the civil suit, joining Stinson and five other assistants. The judge also demands the school district hand over its internal investigation.

Feb. 24: The Kentucky House Education Committee clears legislation that would require ice pools at all high school practices and games when the heat index is 94 degrees or above; requires coaches to be trained in the use of automatic external defibrillators for treating cardiac arrest (they already must know CPR); encourages school boards to purchase the devices and make them available at practices at games; and requires the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to revise its heat policy to consider pollution levels on hot days. The Kentucky School Boards Association supports the bill, filed because of Gilpin’s death.

March 2: The full House passes the bill, but without the ice-pool requirement. The bill’s sponsor withdrew on advice of the Kentucky Medical Association, which said it would help the state board of education develop protocol for treating overheating. Emergency physicians worried that ice pools would not be an effective treatment in all cases.

March 2: The prosecution turns over its evidence to Stinson’s defense (he has pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide). The most damning evidence (drawn from witness interviews) is that despite the hot day, Stinson denied his players water as he added “gassers” (sprints) at the end of practice because he though his players weren’t hustling enough. Players said Stinson called anyone who couldn’t finish the gassers a “coward.” After Gilpin collapsed, Stinson told players to stay away from him “because you’re not his mother or his nurse.”  Stinson told players he was going to run them until somebody quits, and didn’t let anyone take a water break until the end — and then only briefly.

(An editorial comment here. I’m coaching junior kids in basketball, and believe you me I understand the frustration when you have a group of kids who are farting around or otherwise uninspired. And that’s even though my livelihood and ability to pay my mortgage aren’t predicated on their performance. Even if what the prosecution says is true, a lot of coaches are going to look at what Stinson did and say for the grace of God goes I. Also, they’re going to wonder how to punish players who aren’t sufficiently focused, because extra running is a pretty common penalty. This is why a lot of coaches, sickened as they may be over Gilpin’s death, would see the criminal and civil cases as attacks on their authority and profession.)

March 4: Berman tells the Courier-Journal that Stinson, suspended from coaching and reassigned to noninstructional status since his Jan. 21 indictment, will not be back as head football coach. The newspaper notes that it hopes, what with Pleasure Ridge Park being a public school and all, that religion doesn’t play a part again in whom Johnson hires as football coach. It cites this Aug. 25 response, revealed in his civil suit deposition, that Johnson sent to a parent email (apparently it wasn’t hate mail) about Stinson’s qualifications:  “Our head football coach was hired based not only on his knowledge of football, but also because of his strong Christian beliefs and integrity toward his job and the treatment of all who know him.”

March 7: Former Kentucky medical examiner George Nichols, hired by Stinson’s defense for the civil suit, says it wasn’t heat stroke that killed Gilpin. It was Adderall, a drug prescribed for ADHD that includes an amphetamine, which causes overheating. (Nichols has made a career out of being a medical expert for the defense since leaving public service.) The Courier-Journal shows another doctor the hospital records on Gilpin, and he agrees with Nichols. Having a jury (or juries) accept this finding would be huge for Stinson. The case against him is predicated on his denying water on an excessively hot day. If the death is blamed on Adderall, then Stinson is likely off the hook. Maybe a giant douchenozzle, but off the hook.

March 9: Despite supportive testimony from Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks, the Kentucky Senate Education committee waters down the Gilpin-related bill. Instead, it recommends a study on the issue, given the conflicting medical information on how to treat heat-related injuries, and superintendents’ concern about the cost of buying all those defibrillators and providing all that safety training.

March 13: An athletics safety bill  makes it  through the Kentucky legislature and goes to the governor. It requires coaches to get more extensive emergency medical training. That is put back into the bill after legislators have second thoughts about what Brooks said. It’s been a long time since anything a University of Kentucky football coach said was taken seriously.

And now you may consider yourself up-to-date.