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Friday, September 18, 2009

Football Coach's Criminal Trial Was a Lose-Lose Proposition

Everyone involved is likely to come out a loser following the trial of a Kentucky high-school football coach on criminal charges related to the death of one of his players on the practice field.

A Louisville jury yesterday found Coach David Jason Stinson not guilty of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin in August 2008. Stinson's supporters reacted to the news with relief and tears, but the coach hardly is left a winner. He probably is faced with paying massive legal bills on a teacher's salary.

One of the biggest losers is Commonwealth Prosecutor R. David Stengel, a Democrat who brought a case that had almost no chance of success from the outset. Jurors deliberated only 90 minutes before returning a verdict.

The biggest problem with the case? The statutes in question did not come close to matching the alleged actions on the football field the day of Gilpin's death. As we reported in a recent post, experts found huge problems with both charges:


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.

The case did not get any better for prosecutors at trial. Several of Gilpin's teammates testified that on the day in question, they ran only a few more wind sprints than normal. Three of Gilpin's classmates, and his stepmother, testified that Gilpin had complained of not feeling well throughout the day he collapsed.

The biggest blow to the prosecution, aside from its own decision to bring a bad case, was expert testimony showing Gilpin was not dehydrated after his collapse. Prosecutors argued that Stinson had withheld water from his players, causing Gilpin's death. But evidence showing lack of dehydration tended to counter that argument.

Gilpin's parents might have been a double loser. They have filed a lawsuit related to their son's death, which is common in such cases. It's certainly possible that the school district and various officials and coaches will be found to have civil liability. But the Gilpins' civil case might have been hurt by the outcome of the criminal case. Our guess is that they eventually will receive a settlement in the lawsuit, but it might not be what it would have been without the criminal matter.

Other big losers were the taxpayers of Kentucky, who spent probably several hundred thousand dollars on a case that simply did not fit the definition of criminal behavior.

Finally, the case shows there is widespread misunderstanding about the purpose of our criminal-justice system. One Courier-Journal article stated that the prosecution, despite Stinson's acquittal, "sends a strong message" that coaches must err on the side of caution when sending their players through practices on hot days.

But our criminal-justice system is not about sending messages. We're talking about cases where a defendant's freedom often is at stake. Such cases are about this question: Do the facts and the relevant law indicate that a crime was committed?

The answer to that question, in the Stinson case, clearly was no.

Civil cases can bring justice to those who have been harmed--and they can send messages. But if prosecutors pursued the Stinson case in order to "send a message," they were on the wrong track from the outset.

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