September 17, 2009

Ky. coach acquitted in rare player death case

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A former Kentucky high school football coach was found not guilty Thursday in the death of a player who collapsed at a practice where the team was put through a series of sprints on a hot summer day.

In a rare criminal prosecution of a coach, David Jason Stinson, 37, was charged after 15-year-old Max Gilpin collapsed at an August 2008 practice as the team ran a series of sprints known as "gassers." He died three days later at a Louisville hospital of heat stroke, sepsis and multiple organ failure. His temperature reached at least 107 degrees.

The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes, and Stinson hugged defense attorney Brian Butler after the verdict was read.

"That's why they came back quickly, because he was innocent," said Butler, who characterized the prosecution as a "witch hunt." Stinson left without speaking to reporters.

Players said he ordered the gassers as punishment for the lack of effort they showed at practice on a day where the temperature and heat index were both 94 degrees.

Prosecutors relied on a series of Gilpin's teammates who testified that several teens became ill during the gassers, vomiting or bowing out of the running with ailments.

Several medical and athletic training experts also testified for the prosecution, saying Gilpin suffered from exertional heat stroke, which led to his death. One witness, University of Connecticut associate professor Douglas Casa, said Gilpin could have been saved if he'd been immersed in ice water almost immediately after collapsing on the field.

One of the prosecutors, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Leland Hurlbert, said he and Gilpin's relatives were disappointed by the verdict.

"I just spoke with the family-I think it's very difficult for them," he said, acknowledging the challenge of obtaining a guilty verdict against a football coach. "I think they feel like I do, they're kind of disappointed."

Hurlbert said he hopes the case prompts coaches to pay closer attention to their players.

Stinson's defense attorneys relied on Pleasure Ridge Park players who testified that, while they ran sprints, there were only a few more than normal. Three of Gilpin's classmates, along with his stepmother, testified that Gilpin complained of not feeling well throughout the day he collapsed.

Defense medical experts told jurors that it appeared a combination of heat, the use of the dietary supplement creatine and attention deficit disorder drug Adderall, and being ill were the main factors that contributed to Gilpin's death, which they called an accident.

The medical experts also said little could have been done to save Gilpin because his temperature was so high for so long before he made it to the hospital and began cooling down.

Sheldon Berman, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, said in a statement that Stinson, who has been working in a non-instructional position, is now cleared to return to teaching and eligible to apply for a coaching position. Berman said administrators will meet with him to determine his future placement.

Jimmie Reed, executive director of the Kentucky Football Coaches Association, said he followed the trial daily and expected most of the coaches in the state were doing the same. He said a conviction would have had lasting ramifications for all teams.

"Any type of coaching where you're dealing with student-athletes, where there's some type of tragic accident, then it would have been scrutinized to the liability of the coach no matter what the sport was," he said.

Associated Press Writer Malcolm C. Knox contributed to this report.


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