Denver DA calls forced splits video 'painful to watch,' declines to file charges

DA Beth McCann explained her decision to 9NEWS.

KUSA - The Denver District Attorney’s Office announced Saturday afternoon that it will not file charges following 9Wants to Know’s investigation into a shocking video where multiple cheerleaders were forced into the splits, leaving one girl injured and forcing East High School’s principal and athletic director to step down.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann acknowledged that the video was “painful to watch,” but that she believes the evidence and interviews with multiple people involved “does not support the filing of criminal charges.”

McCann says the principal, athletic director and coach were not among those interviewed.

She also said she felt the case would not be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” and that “the bad judgment of the coach … does not constitute a prosecutable crime.”

In an interview with 9NEWS, McCann said her office sent out a news release on Saturday afternoon – something that’s unusual – because she wanted to meet with the cheerleaders’ parents before making an announcement.

“The parents were respectful,” McCann said. “We had a good discussion. They asked questions. Obviously they were very disappointed and had hoped we would be filing charges.”  

An independent investigation ordered by Denver Public Schools’ superintendent showed that Andy Mendelsberg, the principal of East High School, mislead other administrators about everything from the injuries suffered by a cheerleader during the incident to the existence of the disturbing cellphone videos, which were taken during the first week of cheer camp in June.

In the video obtained by 9Wants to Know, eight cheerleaders are shown repeatedly being pushed down into the forced splits while their arms are held up by fellow teammates, making each girl unable to move herself out of the position.

Coach Ozell Williams was seen pushing the girls down further.

“There are differing opinions regarding the use of this technique of cheerleading training,” McCann wrote in her statement. “While I believe the technique should not be used, that is not the standard of proof for a criminal case. Most of the cheerleading squad participated in the technique that day, and there are differing accounts of the circumstances.”

Mendelsberg, who has been the principal of East High School since 2012, retired in September in wake of the 9Wants to Know report and ensuing investigation from the school district.

Lisa Porter, an assistant principal at East who was also serving as the athletic director, also resigned.

Five assistant principals were disciplined. All five saw at least some of the video turned over by a parent in mid-June.

Williams was fired two days after 9NEWS’ report.

"People have known me for years," he told 9NEWS' Marshall Zelinger Saturday night. "I would never have put any of my kids in any harmful situation or hurt them at any point." 

You can read the full statement from the Denver District Attorney’s Office below:

“The video of the incident involving the injured student that has been widely disseminated is painful to watch. However, after a very thorough and careful review of all of the evidence gathered in the investigation and the statements of many members of the cheerleading squad, I have concluded that the evidence does not support the filing of criminal charges. In order to prove a charge of criminal behavior, the case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are differing opinions regarding the use of this technique of cheerleading training. While I believe the technique should not be used, that is not the standard of proof for a criminal case. Most of the cheerleading squad participated in the technique that day, and there are differing accounts of the circumstances.

The individual involved should not be a coach in high school sports and he no longer is. The principal and athletic director of the school have retired and resigned. The message should be clear that this type of technique has no place in high school cheerleading coaching. The bad judgment of the coach, however, does not constitute a prosecutable crime.”

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg issued the following statement about McCann's decision: 

We appreciate the partnership of the Denver Police Department and the Denver District Attorney's Office in this matter. The decisions made by Denver Public Schools were based on the facts as detailed in the independent report by Davis, Graham and Stubbs. 

Our top priority has been, and will continue to be, the safety and well-being of our students. In support of this, and to allow our students to continue healing, we would ask news media to refrain from showing videos of the "forced splits" in covering this issue.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, who is representing the Wakefield and Nickolay families, issued the following statement:

"The Wakefield and Nickolay families continue to focus on their daughters’ physical and emotional healing.  While the families disagree with the decision of the Denver District Attorney’s Office, they appreciate the kindness and genuine concern demonstrated by DA Beth McCann through this difficult process.  The families are determined to ensure no other student athletes are subjected to any form of abuse at the hands of adults entrusted with their care."

Tom Kresl, the attorney for Mendeslberg, issued the following statement: 

"We commend the Denver District Attorney and Denver Police Department for their determination that the conduct at issue in the East High School cheerleading incident was not criminal.  While we have faith in and trust the investigation completed by the District Attorney and Denver Police Department, we believe the investigation commissioned by DPS was neither independent nor representative of Mr. Mendelesberg's actions in addressing the incident.  We look forward to the entire story being made public in the near future."

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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