False start

Prosecutors trudge along in the homicide trial of former PRP coach Jason Stinson

In the summer of 2008, Max Gilpin was striving to be a starting player on the Pleasure Ridge Park High School football team. The once average-size 15-year-old had started working out on his own time, regularly lifting weights with his father, a former football player, and taking the controversial dietary supplement creatine to help build muscle.

By the time football season arrived, the incoming sophomore had bulked up considerably, gaining about 25 pounds, and he was excelling on the field.

“He was really, I believe, trying to get that starting spot. He was really working hard to get better,” Jeff Gilpin testified Tuesday at the trial of Jason Stinson, the former PRP head football coach charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in connection with the heat-related death of Max Gilpin.

On Aug. 20, 2008, a day on which the heat index soared to 94 degrees, Max — a 220-pound offensive lineman — collapsed while running sprints. After attempts to cool and revive Max at the field failed, an ambulance transported him to Kosair Children’s Hospital, where his body temperature registered at 107 degrees.

Three days later, Gilpin died due to septic shock and multiple organ failure caused by heat stroke, according to his death certificate. Deputy Coroner Sam Weakley previously told LEO Weekly that no autopsy was performed because there was no malfeasance suspected at the time, and because, “There wasn’t much doubt as to what killed this guy.”

In fact, even Max’s father — who was present during the Aug. 20 practice — initially told the media that he did not believe Stinson was to blame for his son’s death and that he did not see the coach withhold water, two points the defense hammered him on during cross-examination Tuesday. The defense also questioned him about the fact that he continued attending PRP football games for several weeks after his son’s death.

“I didn’t blame them (coaches) at that time. I was still in shock,” Jeff Gilpin told the jury. “When you lose somebody as close to me as Max was, it takes some time to absorb what happened.”

Soon after Max’s death, Commonwealth’s Attorney David Stengel launched a criminal investigation, and in January a grand jury indicted Stinson. As more details emerged about exactly what transpired at the practice, Jeff Gilpin said his views changed, and he eventually joined his ex-wife in a wrongful death lawsuit currently being litigated.

The prosecution claims Stinson conducted a “barbaric” practice on that sweltering afternoon, denying water to his players while making them run gassers until somebody quit the team. They say several players became ill that day, and that Max died because he followed his coach’s orders.

“When he took his last steps on the field, Max was still doing what his coach told him to do — running,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Leland Hulbert said at the start of the trial last Thursday, adding that Stinson was trained to know the risks of heat stroke and that he never even came to the aid of his ailing player on the field.

The defense, meanwhile, is characterizing this unprecedented case as a witch-hunt and calling Max’s death an “unforeseeable tragedy.” In addition, defense lawyer Brian Butler repeatedly pointed out during opening arguments that tests performed at the hospital revealed Max was not dehydrated, and that the teen was taking the prescription amphetamine Adderall to treat attention deficit disorder when he died, in addition to having previously used creatine.

“Some people didn’t like Jason’s coaching style that day and it got reported. Based on that, (prosecutors) launched the largest-known investigation in the history of Louisville, Ky. But they’re wrong. They’re wrong,” Butler argued during his opening statement, before placing his hand on his client’s shoulder and shouting: “This man is innocent!”

Prosecutors faced a series of roadblocks leading up to the start of Stinson’s trial, making an already challenging high-profile case even more difficult. On the brink of trial, Jefferson Circuit Judge Susan Schultz Gibson tossed out nearly 1,500 pages of the state’s evidence because prosecutors failed to promptly share the information with the defense.

And most recently, it seems a few of the state’s witnesses have done more harm than good. For example, while being questioned by the prosecution, Jeff Gilpin said he did not give his son permission to take a creatine supplement, adding that the boy’s mother bought it for him. On cross-examination, however, Butler inquired about a conversation the witness had with a police investigator in September 2008: “Do you recall telling him that from November 2007 through January 2008 that Max used pre-mixed creatine under your supervision?”

After several fumbled attempts to explain, Jeff Gilpin said, “I don’t recall it. My son had just died. A lot of things happen those first few months that you lose track of.”

The defense lawyer also pointed out that although Jeff Gilpin told the jury he saw his son vomit a few minutes before collapsing at practice, he had never mentioned that to investigators. Butler also pointed out that Jeff Gilpin told a WHAS-TV reporter last year that Max wasn’t feeling well the night before he suffered heat stroke.

Making matters worse for prosecutors — who so far have relied more on emotional accounts of what happened than scientific evidence — is the fact that a number of medical experts who typically testify for the state will instead take the stand for the defense. One such expert witness is Dr. William Smock, a medical professor at the University of Louisville who frequently serves as a forensics consultant for local police.

“This is the first time in his entire career that he’s ever testified in Louisville, Ky., on behalf of someone accused of a crime,” Butler explained to jurors while laying out his case.

Dr. Smock is expected to testify about a meeting with the commonwealth’s attorney earlier this year during which he attempted to dissuade prosecutors from pursuing this case, saying he did not believe Gilpin’s death, although tragic, was a homicide.

Another strong witness slated to take the stand for the accused is Dr. George Nichols, the former chief medical examiner for Kentucky who rarely works with the defense. According to Stinson’s attorneys, he will testify that during a career spanning more than 35 years, he never recalls a homicide case being prosecuted without an autopsy.

In addition, the defense team says both doctors will testify that they do not believe dehydration played a factor in Gilpin’s death, contradicting the prosecution’s claim that the coach withheld water, resulting in the boy’s fatal heat stroke.

“Listen to these doctors,” Butler told the jury, saying they are testifying for the defense because, “It is the right thing to do.”