By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A 17-year-old soccer player accused of punching a referee in the head during a match in Utah was charged with homicide on Wednesday over the assault that ultimately killed referee Ricardo Portillo, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said in a statement they were charging the boy with homicide by assault, a third degree felony, and were seeking to have him tried as an adult. The teen has not yet been identified by authorities because of his juvenile status.
The teen, a goalie, became upset and punched Portillo in the face for penalizing him for shoving a player on the opposing team during an April 27 soccer match in suburban Salt Lake City, according to a report by the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake.
Police who responded to the altercation found Portillo, 46, of Salt Lake City, lying on the soccer field in a fetal position complaining of nausea and pain in his head and back, records show.
Portillo was hospitalized for treatment of what were initially believed to be minor injuries. But an examination showed he had suffered more substantial head injuries. He lapsed into a coma and died on Saturday at Intermountain Medical Center in a Salt Lake City suburb, authorities said.
The goalie was driven away from the soccer field by an adult male and was not available for questioning when police arrived, according to the report. His father later agreed to let the player be interviewed by officers, who last week booked him into a juvenile detention facility on suspicion of aggravated assault.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told Reuters the case has been particularly challenging since it involves a young person whose conduct led to the loss of human life.
"This is just a very difficult case," he said. "In one sense, you have a juvenile. But, in the other sense, you have a family that's lost somebody."
He said the charge of homicide by assault was crafted by the Utah legislature in recognition that certain reckless actions may cause death even though that was not the intent.
He was asking the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction and allow the teen, who is nearing 18, to be tried as an adult.
If convicted of the third-degree felony as an adult, the player could face from two to five years in prison.
"We have an expectation that people should not engage in this kind of conduct at soccer games, part of the normal play of daily life, and that families should not experience this kind of loss," he said.
The incident has galvanized youth sports organizations.
Officials with the American Youth Soccer Organization, the nation's largest soccer association for players aged 4 to 18, said they did not know of another such incident in the history of youth soccer in the United States.
Karen Mihara, head of a program for the soccer organization that promotes safety and protection in youth sports, said it was not uncommon to receive reports of players, or fans, kicking or pushing one another.
"Kids are going to make contact with each other. But we and most organizations will tell you we have a zero tolerance policy for violence," Mihara told Reuters last week.
Portillo had been refereeing a match put on by a league called La Liga Continental, which is not affiliated with the American Youth Soccer Organization.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Gregorio)