Gisele Plancher took a deep breath and began to read her son's handwritten message inside the last Mother's Day card he ever gave her.
Her voice wavered as she told jurors that her son, Ereck, wrote, "I would like to personally thank you for raising me from a boy to a young man. Even with two jobs, you were always there for me, mommy."
Gisele then began weeping and relied on family attorney Steve Yerrid to read the remainder of the message from her son inscribed on a pink and white card. UCF football player Ereck Plancher wrote, "I hope you know I'm where I'm at because of you" and told his mother that he loved her.
The Plancher family attorneys rested their case against the UCF Athletics Association Monday afternoon following emotional testimony from the UCF football player's parents. The attorneys called 22 witnesses to support their argument UCFAA is guilty of gross negligence.
Plancher collapsed and died following offseason conditioning drills on the UCF campus on March 18, 2008. Orange County medical examiner Joshua Stephany testified Ereck Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait. He told jurors that under extreme stress, the trait warps red blood cells. He said the cells quickly damage major organs and cause the body to shut down.
Dr. Randy Eichner, who has studied sickle cell trait for about 25 years, told the jury Plancher's life could have been saved if UCFAA staff had monitored the player more closely during his final workout. He was one of two expert witnesses hired by the Plancher family who told jurors UCFAA was "below the standard of care" on the day Plancher died.
UCFAA attorneys contend the medical examiner's autopsy was flawed and Plancher died from an undiagnosed heart condition. UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro told the jury during his opening statement coaches and athletic trainers did everything possible to save Plancher's life, but no one was responsible for his death.UCFAA attorneys will begin presenting their case Tuesday morning, the 12th day of the wrongful death trial. They are expected to call medical experts, former UCF football players and coaches to support their argument.
Plancher's parents, who were both born in Haiti and raised their children in Naples, told the jury Monday they never knew their son had sickle cell trait.
Gisele Plancher said she was extremely close to her son, speaking with him six or seven times a day via phone calls while he was a student at UCF. She said he told her everything about his life, but he never mentioned sickle cell trait. The Plancher attorneys contend the football player was never told about the condition that contributed to his death.
Enock Plancher, Ereck Plancher's father, testified his son's death "leaves a deep space in my life. That space will never be filled."
Gisele Plancher told the jury Ereck "was the best child in the whole world."
Enock Plancher said he was equally proud of his son. "He was the best kid I ever know. He was polite, kind. He loved everybody. He loved sports."
When he was asked whether there was ever a moment he didn't feel the loss of his son, he responded, "Every day. Every minute, I feel it."
Enock Plancher said he had big dreams for his son and figured Ereck Plancher would be the one to take care of the family after his father died because he was so responsible.
"I would like for him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he didn't like that," Enock Plancher said. "He wanted to be a business man."
Gisele Plancher said her son was following in her husband's footsteps. She testified Enock Plancher was a businessman who worked long hours to help provide for his family.
Enock Plancher said he grew up playing soccer and hope his son would play the same sport.
"We don't play football," he said. "That's why I didn't like it for Ereck. I didn't want him to get hurt."
He said Ereck Plancher loved football, so he ultimately decided to let him play the sport that made him happy.
During cross examination, UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor asked Enock Plancher whether he knew there were risks if his son decided to play college football.
Enock Plancher responded, "When I say risks, I didn't want him to get hurt. I never knew that the game could kill him."
Plancher's parents both testified their son worked out daily during spring break. He spent the last Saturday night of his spring break at church retreat.
Gisele Plancher told the jury about baking cakes for each of Ereck Plancher's birthdays and talked about him while Yerrid played a slide show of pictures of him. She smiled when she explained he liked to dress up in tuxedos as a child. She cried softly when you she talked about pictures of Plancher in his UCF uniform and pictures of his memorial service attended by more than 3,000 people.
She told the jury about helping pack her son's car as he prepared to drive back to UCF at the end of spring break, giving him water and Gatorade for the trip. She told the jury Ereck Plancher said, "`Goodbye mom, I love you.' I say, `Goodbye son. I love you too.' It's the last time I saw him."
Gisele Plancher told the jury she had to remove Ereck Plancher's photographs and clothes from her home because she couldn't pass them without crying. She said the family no longer celebrates any holidays.
"That's the worst thing in life, for a mother to bury her son," she said. "That's hurt me every day. Every day, every minute, every second."
Before the Planchers were sworn in for live testimony, Dr. Saroja Bharati -- a cardiologist consulted by the Orange County medical examiner -- testified it was her opinion Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait.
UCFAA attorneys have stressed Bharati stated in her report to the medical examiner that it would be useful to study the heart's cardiac conduction system by serial section cross examination. Stephany chose not to do the heart dissection, telling the jury he thought Bharati only wanted to see if for research purposes and it is the type of work done when a medical examiner has not been able to determine the cause of death.
Bharati's testimony was not videotaped, so highlights of it were ready to the jury.
During cross examination, Bharati agreed no one has researched the impact of sickle cell trait on the heart.
Before Bharati's testimony was read to the jury, Plancher family attorneys played video highlights of UCF coach George O'Leary's deposition.
O'Leary stated it was UCFAA policy to inform an athlete, inform an athlete's parents and inform the coaches whenever a football player tested positive for sickle cell trait.
"If it shows positive, there's counseling from the trainer, notification of the parents and notification of the coach," O'Leary stated when asked about UCFAA's policy.
After the Plancher family attorneys played about 15 minutes of O'Leary's deposition for the jury, the group was excused from the courtroom while the UCFAA attorneys argued the judge ruled before the trial and could not reference UCFAA's decision to inform Plancher's parents about the player's condition.
UCFAA argued Plancher was older than 18 years old at the time of his death and a federal privacy laws prevented it from informing his parents about the condition.
After an extended debate, Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans instructed the jury to disregard any reference O'Leary made to informing Planchers' parents their son tested positive for the trait because of privacy laws.
During his videotaped testimony, O'Leary called Plancher's final workout "non taxing" and said he never saw Plancher show any signs of distress. He stated he was aware sickle cell trait has caused the death of some football players.
O'Leary stated he was aware of what symptoms to look for, but he relied on athletic trainers to treat players.
Before O'Leary's testimony was played for the jury, UCFAA attorneys aimed to discredit former player Nate Tice. UCFAA cross examined Tice after he told jurors no one assisted Ereck Plancher when he showed signs of distress during his final workout.
Video highlights of Tice's testimony was played for the jury after they returned from taking a tour of UCF's football complex.
Tice agreed with UCFAA attorney Brian Rubenstein it would be fair to say he transferred to the University of Wisconsin because he didn't earn enough playing time during O'Leary's tenure. Tice is now a backup quarterback at Wisconsin.
Tice also testified he spent part of his spring break renting a home with teammates in Destin. He stated he drank beer for the first four days of his spring break. Tice stated he was with a group of about 10 players who did not do the spring workout UCF conditioning coaches gave players during their nine day break from the program. Tice stated Plancher was not with the group and typically did everything asked of him. Tice agreed he would not have had as much difficulty completing the workout if he had done his spring break conditioning drills.
During direct questioning by Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid, Tice told the jury he spoke to Plancher between what he described as a grueling obstacle course and timed sprints.
"He didn't say words," Tice said of Plancher's response when he tried to speak with him. "He kind of just grunted, kind of groaned at me, `ugh,' like kind of just made a noise."
When he was asked what Plancher looked like, Tice responded, "I could tell he was, you know, very tired, and I -- you know, I've seen guys tired before and they kind of just don't talk, they don't want to talk. There's been times when I don't want to talk because I think I'm going to vomit all over the guy that's talking to me. And he was kind of just like -- he kind of was just going like oh, like that, like making noises, and I -- that was my first like kind of thought that like all right, maybe, you know -- maybe we should, you know, get him out of here."
Tice is the fourth former UCF football player present at Plancher's final workout on March 18, 2008, to testify athletic trainers did not respond as Plancher showed signs of unusual fatigue and muscle weakness.
He told the jury it was about 12 minutes between the time he first noticed Plancher was in distress and assistant football athletic trainer Robert Jackson began treating Plancher.
When he was asked during cross examination during UCFAA attorneys, Tice said he felt like he should have called athletic trainers to help Plancher following the obstacle course. He stated all the players who saw Plancher struggling should have called for help. Rubenstein asked Tice if it was fair to say his perspective had changed because Plancher died. Tice responded, "Yes, greatly so."
He testified the players never drank any water during the drills inside the practice facility. Tice stated athletic trainers were on the sideline away from the team and did not assist Plancher until he was being carried out of the practice facility by his teammates.
When Tice was asked whether O'Leary ever ordered athletic trainers or water be removed from the fieldhouse, he responded he did not recall. His testimony differed from former players Anthony Davis, Cody Minnich and Brian Watters, who said O'Leary ordered the athletic trainers and water be removed.
O'Leary has testified he never ordered water and athletic trainers be removed from the fieldhouse. He also stated he did not see Plancher show any signs of distress during the workout.
When Tice was asked during cross examination whether he ever asked for water, Tice responded he did not. Tice stated he never witnessed any players taking water from squirt bottles, but he couldn't testify with certainty none of the 82 players at the workout took any water during the obstacle course.Tice was asked if he was able to tell the jury how Plancher felt during the workout, what caused Plancher to fall or if whether he ever heard Plancher ask for an athletic trainer. Tice responded "no" to all three questions.
During direct questions from Plancher family attorneys, he described the workout as "punishment" after the players returned from a nine day spring break. The players did timed sprints the day before Plancher's final workout on March 18, 2008. Tice testified there was a sense of urgency after the players finished lifting weights and moved into the fieldhouse for conditioning drills.
"It was like, `Get in there, let's go, we're going right now,'" Tice said. "Like you have no time to go to the bathroom, you have no time to get water, just go."
He told the jury O'Leary has been a longtime family friend. O'Leary coached Nate Tice's father, Mike Tice, in high school. Nate Tice testified he has known O'Leary since about the least the seventh grade.
Tice described O'Leary as a tough coach who intimidated him.
"I knew his style," Tice stated. "I knew what kind of personality he was, but going in, I just -- I don't know, that kind of -- every -- every day kind of the thing that like I was always like in fear. That's the best way to put it. Not like -- it was just always -- I always thought I was going to do something wrong. I was scared to do anything wrong at any time. You know, during practice, if you threw one bad play, you know, you were just -- I was just freaking out.
"I was -- you know, I would -- during -- before lifts, I would throw before lifts. And it was you know, I -- I already did have a -- kind of a weak stomach, but it was just like -- it would be an early morning lift, and it was just because I was so scared of the lift. Like it was -- it was very -- I don't know, I've never really had that feeling before, like I never -- I always thought of football as a fun -- fun game, you know, that's what football is, it's a game, and going there kind of took a lot of the joy out of it.
Tice said O'Leary's approach was different than other coaches he met throughout his career.
"It was just, you know, how the style was, it -- like, you know, football is all -- every -- the whole team my dad always taught me this, the whole team is based off the head coach, like the -- the personality of the team, from the coaches, from the the assistant coaches, from training staff to the players. And, you know, UCF's a tough team, but it was also -- the assistant coaches would just berate you because the head coach would berate you."
He was asked if he could cite an example of O'Leary's treatment of players. Tice responded, "The one that stands out for me personally was probably -- it was my third practice there at UCF, first week had to have been, of fall camp, a true freshman I had no idea, you know, what's going on in the offense, and I ran a play, and I took a -- a sack or it was a loss of yards, and he just came up to me and grabbed me by the face mask and said what the [video skipped for removal of explicative] you doing, throw the [video skipped for removal expletive] ball away. That was -- like I still remember that, but grabbed me by the face mask, you know, I've never really had anyone do that to me."
Tice said O'Leary would yell at some players as motivation and at others to let them know they were no longer wanted on the team. He also told the jury he recalled O'Leary yelling and hitting an offensive lineman while showing him how to properly block during a workout.
When Tice was asked if O'Leary used profanity in an extreme sense, Tice responded, "he used profanity a lot."
Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid asked Tice how O'Leary's use of profanity compared to other coaches. Tice responded, "Most coaches I've been around that have sworn, it was -- might be for comical reasons or it might be just like -- you know, just kind of adds emphasis, like it -- but Coach O'Leary, it was like they were trying to bring a guy down."
Tice stated he gave a sworn statement to UCFAA attorneys about a month after Plancher's death. He said he was not represented by an attorney and no attorneys were there on behalf of the Plancher family.
When he was asked, Tice confirm O'Leary's personal assistant Manny Messengeur was present when Tice gave his sworn statement. When Tice was asked why he thought Messengeur was there, Tice responded, "I think that he was kind of there to put pressure, that -- to players not to say the wrong things."
During cross examination by UCFAA attorneys, Tice was asked if anyone told him what to say during his sworn statement. Tice responded, "specifically what to say? No."
Tice agreed UCF had a policy instructing players not to speak with the media. He stated Wisconsin had a similar policy.
Tice stated he was told he would receive a copy of his sworn statement shortly after speaking to a UCFAA attorney, but he did not receive it until he asked for it about two years later.
Evans ruled on one key shortly before the lunch break. Evans stated UCFAA could call witnesses to support the argument Gisele Plancher, Ereck Plancher's mother, could have informed the football player he had tested positive for sickle cell trait.
Before Tice's testimony, the jury toured the UCF football complex Monday morning.
Evans and UCF football equipment manager Thad Rivers led the jury on a tour of the UCF football weight room and indoor practice facility, the scene of Plancher's final workout on March 18, 2008. The judge the instructed attorneys and Rivers not to speak to the jury during the tour, allowing them to take their time and wander freely through the football complex.
Before the jury left its bus, Evans took the tour with attorneys representing the UCF Athletics Association and the Plancher family.
UCFAA attorneys told the judge they wanted the jury to walk into the athletic training room, the UCF weight room, the UCF locker room, the sidewalk between the locker room and the indoor practice facility and into the indoor practice facility.
Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid said the jurors should not be able to walk out the front entrance of the weight room past a water fountain to the locker room. The judge agreed to let the jury walk out a rear weight room entrance to enter the locker room without passing the water fountain.
UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro protested it was not the route football players normally took through the facility. UCFAA attorneys and Rivers both said the players go down the hallway past the water fountain to the locker room, then come back out after changing to enter the weight room.
Evans responded, "I know that, but I can't start them in the locker room. They have to come in somewhere."
Yerrid asked whether a large water jug should be set outside the fieldhouse.
The judge said once former UCF football player Brian Watters, a Plancher family witness, stated the water was located on the sidewalk outside of the fieldhouse, he would allow the jury to see it.
"Once I got the testimony from your witness, I felt comfortable putting it there," Evans told Yerrid.
Evans asked the attorneys whether they had any disagreement about the physical layout of the building, and they all said they did not.
Loud fans in the practice facility were turned on for the visit.
While walking with the judge and other attorneys toward the fieldhouse, Yerrid asked how long the fans had been on before the attorneys arrived.
UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor said "the fans turn on automatically."
However, the loud fans typically are turned on and off manually before and after UCF workouts so that players can hear O'Leary address the team.
Once the attorneys were inside the facility, Yerrid told the judge there was a question whether the doors were open and fans were on during Plancher's final workout.
"I think that the purpose of this visit is so that they can see the facility," Evans said.
Yerrid said he was concerned it was not an accurate representation of the heat inside the fieldhouse on the day Plancher died.
Evans previously said he would instruct the jurors to disregard the temperature in the fieldhouse during the visit.
The Planchers called 22 witnesses to support their argument UCFAA is guilty of gross negligence and failed to do everything possible to save Plancher's life.
Dr. Randy Eicnher, a physician who has studied sickle cell trait for more than 25 years, told the jury UCFAA was "below the standard of care" on the day Plancher died.
"They didn't pull him or help him fast enough and if they had, he would have survived," Eichner said.
Shapiro aimed to discredit Eichner during cross examination by highlighting inconsistencies in accounts of the workout he used to form his opinions, his contact with the medical examiner before Stephany completed his autopsy report and the lack of rigorous medical studies proving sickle cell trait can cause sudden death.
Eichner said he reached out to the medical examiner four months before he was hired by the Plancher family to be an expert witness because he wants to prevent more deaths caused by the trait.
UCFAA attorneys are expected to call former UCF football players, coaches, athletic trainers and medical experts this week to support their argument Plancher died for an undiagnosed heart condition and no one could have prevented his death.
The judge is asking the attorneys to wrap up their closing arguments at noon Thursday.
If the jury finds UCFAA guilty of negligence, both sides will then present another brief round of arguments so that the jury can decide whether UCFAA is guilty of gross negligence.
At the end of Monday's proceedings, the Plancher family attorneys have two hours and 32 minutes remaining for cross examination, objections and closing arguments. UCFAA has 11 hours and 34 minutes for direct questioning, objections and closing arguments. Evans stated the attorneys could use 90 minutes for their closing arguments.
Check back for live updates throughout the Plancher trial. Contact Iliana Limón at email@example.com or 407-650-6353.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun