Friday, September 18, 2009

Football Coach Acquitted

I've stirred up some conversation with my Facebook friends concerning the recent acquittal of Jason Stinson of reckless homicide. If you recall, Coach Stinson was coaching high school football in the great state of Kentucky when, during summer sessions in 2008, a 15 year old player, Max Gilpin, collapsed and later died of heat stroke.

I was always troubled by this prosecution. Not because I'm a closet law breaker, but because the idea of charging a coach for running a difficult (maybe brutal) summer practice for a crime was inherently suspect. I say inherently suspect because I endured summer football sessions when I was in high school, running sprints, bear crawls, and the like without water in 90 degree heat. In fact, basketball practices were not not much easier although winters in central Pennsylvania kept us cozied-up inside the warm (and sometimes sweltering) gymnasium.

Those days were different, of course, and times have changed coaching practices as medical research revealed the need for proper hydration and protection from the elements for players. Nonetheless, I suspect the Kentucky high school that hired Stinson expected him to work the players hard, develop their mental and physical toughness, and play to win. Running wind sprints, gassers, and bear crawls was part of that process. I don't fault the coach for working his players hard . . . even past, what they believed, were their physical limits.

Max Gilpin's death was tragic, without question. But the use of governmental power to pursue his conviction was unreasonable. Sure, the Gilpin family probably supported the prosecution whole-heartedly. But a prosecutor is not bound by the will and wishes of an alleged victim (or their family). I guess if you want to protect your political future, you bow. But a prosecutor must also be cognizant of community standards and the chilling effect a prosecution might have on lawful activities. This is even more evident in the Stinson prosecution as the evidence clearly showed the Gilpin boy was taking amphetamines (Adderall) which affected his body's ability to regulate its own temperature.

Anyway, I was glad coach Stinson was acquitted, but equally saddened by the loss of Max Gilpin. I hope all prosecutors will step back from their cases and make sure they prosecute citizens for crimes and not terrible accidents. When we start seeking convictions to make a point, rather than to seek justice, we're heading down a slippery slope very quickly.

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