A former Kentucky high school football coach was found not guilty 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.
Attorneys said the case was the first time a football coach was charged in the death of a player. It was closely watched by those involved in youth athletics and has already resulted in changes to Kentucky law and other efforts to make practices safer for athletes. Former Pleasure Ridge Park High School 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. He died three days later at a Louisville hospital of heat stroke, sepsis and multiple organ failure. His temperature reached at least 107 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius).
The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes, and Stinson hugged defense attorney Brian Butler after the verdict was read on Thursday. "That's why they came back quickly, because he was innocent," said Butler, who characterized the prosecution on charges of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment as a "witch hunt." Stinson left without speaking to reporters.
During the trial, players said Stinson ordered the sprints as punishment for the lack of effort they showed at practice on a day where the temperature and heat index were both 94 degrees F (34.4 C).
Prosecutors relied on a series of Gilpin's teammates who testified that several teens became ill during the sprints, vomiting or bowing out with ailments.
Several experts testified that Gilpin suffered from exertional heat stroke, which led to his death. One witness, University of Connecticut associate professor Douglas Casa, testified Gilpin could have been saved if he'd been immersed in ice water almost immediately after collapsing.
Stinson's defense relied on players who testified that they only ran a few more wind sprints than normal that day. 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.
Gilpin's mother, Michele Crockett, said the trial told the story of what led up to her son's death and was "an uphill battle" for prosecutors. But because the public heard the details of what happened, the trial was worth it, she said.
"We feel fortunate that it was even brought to the jury," Crockett said. "We can live with it. We can live with that." "We know Max didn't die in vain," said Gilpin's father, Jeff Gilpin.
One of the prosecutors, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Leland Hulbert, said he hoped the case would prompt coaches to pay closer attention to their players.
"I do think some good will come out of this trial," Hulbert said.
Some of those changes came in the months before the trial: Kentucky lawmakers this year passed legislation that led to a four-hour online course for coaches on emergency planning and recognition; temperature-related illnesses; head, neck and facial injuries; and first aid. reinforcement when dealing with students. Also this year, the National Athletic Trainers' Association issued a report recommending more stringent heat-related guidelines at the high school level. Among the recommendations were eliminating two-a-day practices during the first week of August drills and giving players more time to recuperate.
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 would meet with him to determine his future placement.