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Monday, August 31, 2009

Death on the Football Field: Case Raises Troubling Questions About Prosecutors

A football coach in Louisville, Kentucky, goes on trial today on criminal charges connected to the heat-related death of one of his players last August.

Coach David Jason Stinson is charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the death of Max Gilpin, 15, who collapsed while running sprints on a day when the heat index reached 94 degrees. Gilpin died three days later from complications of heat stroke, according to his death certificate.

The case ultimately might be more about the questionable actions of prosecutors than anything that happened on a football field. It is the first time a high school or college coach has faced criminal charges related to the death of a player, and legal experts say prosecutors face huge obstacles in trying to prove their case.

Gilpin's parents have filed a lawsuit, which is common in such cases. But charging a coach with a crime? That has never been done before, causing many experts to question the motives of Commonwealth Prosecutor R. David Stengel.

Prosecutors have looked shaky in recent days. First, they added the wanton endangerment charge late in the proceedings, creating the appearance that it is a fallback for a weak reckless-homicide case. Second, they were accused of concealing a meeting with an expert who determined that Gilpin's death was a "tragic accident," probably caused by his use of a prescription drug for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Third, prosecutors gave defense attorneys a coroner's report only last week; the report declared that Gilpin's death was an accident.

Criminal charges in the case looked questionable from the outset.

The reckless homicide statute from the Kentucky Code is short and to the point.

Even if the prosecution is successful at the trial level, our research indicates that reckless-homicide convictions often do not hold up on appeal. In a 2001 Kentucky case, a father was convicted of reckless homicide based partly on his failure to obey the state's seatbelt-restraint law in an accident that caused the death of his daughter. The conviction was overturned.

In a 2007 Kentucky case, a man was convicted of reckless homicide based partly on the fact that his vehicle had worn tires when he was involved in an accident that led to a death. That conviction was overturned.

State of mind is a critical component in this crime. The Kentucky statute states in pertinent part:

A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The opinion in the 2007 case gives examples of behavior where a reckless homicide was held to be appropriate:

Published Kentucky cases relating to reckless homicide convictions have involved circumstances such as driving under the influence, Commonwealth v. Runion, 873 S.W.2d 583 (Ky.App. 1993), running a stop sign while driving at twice the speed limit, Commonwealth v. Harrell, 3 S.W.3d 349 (Ky. 1999), or causing a disabled woman’s death through neglectful care. West, 935 S.W.2d 315.

The Louisville Courier-Journal quotes one veteran attorney:

“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.”

The wanton endangerment charge looks flimsy, too. Reports the Courier-Journal:

It may be even harder for the prosecution to convict Stinson on the wanton endangerment count because it requires proof that he knew about the risks to Max's health and consciously disregarded them, said University of Kentucky professor Robert Lawson.

“They must prove he saw the risk . . . and said, ‘To hell with it, I'm going to do it anyway,'” said Lawson, the main author of Kentucky's laws on crime and punishment.

So what were prosecutors thinking when they brought criminal charges against the football coach? That is hard to figure. Stengel, a Democrat, has been in office since 1996 and ran unopposed in his last two elections, so it doesn't appear that he needed to bring the case for political reasons.

But winning the case figures to be an uphill climb, former federal prosecutor Kent Wicker said:

Even if prosecutors persuade the jury that Stinson made excessive demands on his players, Wicker said, “There is a difference between a football coach who was too tough on his players and a criminal—and I think jurors will see him as the former.”

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