Former UCF football player Cody Minnich testified coach George O'Leary ordered athletic trainers to remove water from the indoor practice facility during Ereck Plancher's final workout.
Minnich told a jury that the athletic trainers were not near the players when they went through an obstacle course and no one helped Plancher when he was in distress.
Minnich said the coaches reaction to Plancher's distress and poor performance during the workout as, "More they were looking at him, like, what's wrong with you, why couldn't you do that? You know, not what's wrong with you? Can we help you?"
Video footage of Minnich's testimony was played for the jury on the fifth day of the Plancher wrongful death trial. Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans instructed the jury to give Minnich's testimony the same weight as any other witness appearing in person.
Evans also set strict time rules for the Plancher family and UCF Athletics Association attorneys to make sure the civil trial is completed in three weeks. Both sides began Friday with 32 hours apiece for questioning of their witnesses, cross examination of the opposing side's witnesses, objections and closing arguments. After a lunch break, Evans told the attorneys to let him know if they needed more time and he would try to secure overtime pay for the court staff to work late or on Saturdays.
Minnich was a member of the UCF football team and present for Plancher's last workout on March 18, 2008. Plancher collapsed and died following the offseason conditioning drills supervised by the UCF coach George O'Leary and his staff.
After Minnich's testimony was completed, UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro told the jury Minnich was dismissed from the team as punishment. Evans previously ruled the jury could not hear the reason Minnich was dismissed. Minnich was removed from the team after he was charged with driving while intoxicated.
Minnich described the workout as extremely difficult. He recalled throwing up, suffering from blurred vision and feeling dizzy. Minnich said other players were throwing up and struggling to get through the workout.
When the UCF Athletics Association cross examination of Minnich resumed following a lunch break, he said players often threw up after running through Bright House Networks Stadium. "It's fairly common," he said. "It's something that might happen every day, people throwing up from fatigue."
The UCF football team had just completed a nine-day break and Minnich said most of the players were out of shape. During cross examination, Minnich agreed he couldn't speak for the conditioning of the other players.
Minnich said offensive coordinator Tim Salem told the players they would be doing mat drills, which was something Minnich said the team had never done before. Minnich said the workout included an obstacle course the team had never done before.
"The reason that, that workout happened the way it did, in my mind, in my opinion, was because the day before we had to work out -- and Cliff McCray, Ereck's roommate, and he was our starting left guard or right guard," Minnich said. "He was one of our starting guards -- 12 he could not make an 18-second run in time. He had finished too slow. We had just run one only one after the weights, and he couldn't make it. So I felt that, that day was, like, a punishment by Coach O'Leary to prove, like, to put us back in shape."
During cross examination, Minnich agreed no one on the coaching staff told him the workout was punishment. When he was asked whether he was just making an assumption about the workout, Minnich responded, "Well, the way I'd have to answer it is every time you've ever been punished in your life, have you always been told you're being punished, or can you sense if you're being punished or not? And I took it as I was being punished because I sensed I was being punished."
Minnich described the team lifting weights, then moving into the fieldhouse to do agility drills. He said the fans were not on and the doors to the indoor practice facility were closed.
"We used to describe it as a human microwave because it pretty much felt like it was cooking you," Minnich said. "It would be hotter in there than it was outside."
Minnich said it was not unusual for O'Leary to order water to be removed from the fieldhouse during a workout. He said he saw the athletic trainers exit the fieldhouse with the water and he wasn't sure when they returned.
During cross examination, Minnich agreed he didn't know what Plancher was thinking during the workout. Minnich had testified that Plancher had no choice but to finish, but he agreed with a UCFAA attorney when asked he could have called an athletic trainer for help.
Minnich stressed he thought all players faced negative repercussions if they did not follow the coaches' rules, including the coaches potentially deciding not renew a player's scholarship.
Minnich described seeing Plancher show signs of distress during conditioning drills inside the fieldhouse. He said the first time he saw athletic trainers move forward to treat Plancher was when he was being carried out of the facility by his teammates.
Gisele Plancher, Ereck Plancher's mother, cried during Minnich's description of the workout and left the courtroom.
When Minnich was asked why he didn't call for an athletic trainer to help Plancher when he noticed his teammate was in distress, Minnich responded he was more focused on his own difficulty getting through the workout.
Minnich testified because he was exercising with the offensive linemen, he didn't see Plancher -- a wide receiver -- during the obstacle course. While he was being cross examined, Minnich agreed with UCFAA attorney Sally Slaybaugh when she said he couldn't say how difficult the workout was for Plancher because he wasn't watching him during the obstacle course portion of the workout.
During a break, UCFAA attorneys requested a mistrial because the jury should not have heard the football team has never done the March 18, 2008, obstacle course since Plancher's death. UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro said it was a remedial measure that the jury was not allowed to hear.
Evans rejected the motion, but he did say he would instruct the jury about the issue.
The attorneys also once again debated whether O'Leary's curse words directed at Plancher and the players should be heard by the jury. Evans reiterated his previous decision the Plancher attorneys could describe the coach as cursing and yelling, but the jury could not hear the specific curse word.
The Plancher family attorney video technician edited the footage. The judge said he would allow it to be partially bleeped. After half of the curse word was heard by the jury, the UCFAA attorneys objected. The footage of Minnich was paused and the attorneys spoke with the judge away from the jury about the incident. They eventually resumed playing the video without any instructions to the jury, but the judge reviewed all subsequent segments amended to remove curse words before they were played in front of the jury.
After Minnich's testimony was completed, the Plancher family attorneys called Douglas Casa as their next witness. Casa is a certified athletic trainer and director of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. He has extensive experience studying the causes of sudden death in athletes and was called to tell the jury about sickle cell trait, a condition the medical examiner stated caused Plancher's death. The UCFAA attorneys have suggested a heart condition caused Plancher's death.
Casa, who hired by the Plancher family attorneys to testify in the case, told the jury practicing athletic trainers work to prevent, recognize and threat athletes' injuries.
Casa described key features of the onset of exertional sickling. He said athletes will notice sosmething very different than they would normally feel during an activity.
"They can't support their body weight," he said.
He added that athletes suffering from complications related to sickle cell trait may suffer from full body cramping and muscle pain.
"Without question, the biggest thing is extreme fatigue," he said. " Those mucles can't fucntion the way they did previously."
Casa said he reviewed 13 player depositions, four coaches' depositions, four strength coaches' depositions, four physicians' depositions, the medical examiner's report and an assortment of other materials related to the case before offering his opinion.
Casa said it was his opinion Ereck Plancher did not know he had sickle cell trait. He also said head athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden, O'Leary and strength coach Ed Ellis were the only people in the football program who were aware Plancher had sickle cell trait and Vander Heiden was the only one who was aware of the potential impact sickle cell trait could have on Plancher.
"I never got the impression that any of the football coaches were aware of the risks associated with being sickle cell trait positive," Casa said.
He said it was his opinion based on the testimony he reviewed, athletic trainer Robert Jackson did not respond quickly enough when Plancher showed signs of distress. He cited at least seven players who said in their depositions that they saw Plancher in distress.
"I believe it was below the standard of care," he said.
Casa noted that Jackson stated during his deposition he did not know Plancher had sickle cell trait. Casa said it was his opinion all athletic trainers and coaches should have been informed Plancher had the trait and counseled about its potential implications.
The Plancher family attorneys completed their direct questioning. The judge released the jury at about 4:20 p.m. Casa is scheduled to be cross examined Monday at 8:30 a.m.
Before the judge brought in the jury Friday morning, UCFAA renewed its objections to the way Evans cut off attorney Shapiro while he was cross examining a witness Thursday at 5 p.m. Evans said he had warned Shapiro repeatedly that he was ending court session at 5 p.m. Shapiro protested when he was cut off, saying he had a lot more questions to ask Dr. Barry J. Maron.
Evans asked whether Maron would be available to testify Friday and he said he was not available. Evans said he would not extend the court proceedings beyond 5 p.m. because he promised the jury they would be released at 5 p.m. and there is no money in the budget to pay overtime for the court staff.
"I don't think you used your time wisely," Evans said. " I'm not going to take a trial that's scheduled for three weeks and turn it into three months."
After the jury left Thursday afternoon, Shapiro protested the judge's statement to the jury. Plancher family attorneys offered to pay for Maron to take a later flight so he could be available in the morning, but Shapiro said he only had 10-15 more minutes of questions remaining and he felt bringing the witness back in for the questions would make him look bad in front of the jury.
UCFAA attorneys requested a mistrial Friday morning and asked the judge to recuse himself. Evans told the attorneys he denied the mistrial and he needed the motion for recusal in writing before he could rule on it. UCFAA attorneys eventually withdrew the motion.
Evans did allow them to compose a special instruction he read to the jury informing the group it should not view Shapiro and his questioning of Maron negatively because the judge cut him off Thursday afternoon.
Evans noted that he warned Shapiro throughout the final hour Thursday the court would not continue past 5 p.m.
Shapiro also renewed his objection the Minnich video testimony because it did not include all circumstances surrounding Minnich's departure from the team. Minnich, a former walk on who earned a scholarship, was dismissed from the team after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. At the advice of his personal attorney, Minnich did not answer questions whether he failed three drug tests at UCF.
Evans reiterated his previous ruling the attorneys could tell the jury Minnich was dismissed involuntarily, but could not delve into why he was removed from the team.
The judge brought in the jury and addressed a question from the group. The jurors asked whether the judge's instruction not read about the case on the news and avoid posting messages about it online precluded them from visiting Facebook. The judge instructed the jurors they should not use any electronic media, including Facebook, to communicate for the remainder of the trial.
Check back for live updates when the Plancher trial resumes Monday. email@example.com or 407-650-6353. Read By Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.