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When will our blood-lust be satisfied?

June 27, 1997

A sad, tragic story unwound in a Berkeley County (W.Va.) courtroom earlier this month, a drama which knitted several previously unrelated lives and should have us all thinking about what type of people we're becoming.

The facts of the case were these: Robert Lee Sparkman Jr. had been drinking with friends over last year's Thanksgiving weekend. At 1 a.m. Sunday, state trooper Kevin Plumer spotted Sparkman's car driving erratically on a tavern-lined stretch of U.S. 11 in South Berkeley County.

When Plumer tried to stop the car, Sparkman took off, leading police on a 100-mile-an-hour chase that ended in a flash when Sparkman plowed into the rear-end of a car driven by Amanda Smailes, instantly killing the promising 21-year-old.

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Sparkman, who apologized for his actions, was convicted and received a one to 10 year sentence.

Sadly, there wasn't anything overly unusual about this case - drunken driving death stories are common courtroom fodder across the nation. The first story I ever covered in the "real world" was the trial of a man accused of driving drunk and causing the death of a popular Morgan County resident named Roger Moss.

What made the Sparkman case unique was that the entire chase was captured on videotape by a camera crew filming for the television show "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol."

Obviously, it was a highly sensational tape, including not only the crash and the terrible aftermath, but also some unsettling comments by trooper Plumer during the heat of the chase.

The tape played twice in the courtroom, but thankfully never aired on television.

Trooper Plumer was understandably devastated by the outcome. "I killed that girl," he's heard repeating on the tape. Plumer was wrong; he did not kill Amanda Smailes, Sparkman did. Sparkman was drinking. Would Plumer have felt any better had he given up the chase only later to learn that Sparkman had killed someone else later that morning?

Of course police are human beings with human feelings, and Plumer will live with that gruesome, late-night accident scene for a long, long time. Sparkman will also live with what he did, and he'll spend time in prison for doing it.

These men's roles have been fairly well defined and played out in a court of law.

What's equally disturbing is the role and the seeming non-culpability of the television show "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" and the people who revel in watching such shows.

It's hard to analyze how much Plumer was goaded to the chase by the presence of a film crew. Perhaps none at all. But I have a hard time believing that with the videotape running and one's toughness at stake that abandoning the chase was ever an option.

Writing down a plate number and arresting a guy at his home the next day doesn't make for good television (or, to be fair, a good case since it gives the guy time to get his blood-alcohol content back in the stratosphere).

But while the Baptists are busy boycotting Disney, it seems to me a far more serious threat is scratching at the social fabric in the form of "real-life" shows that put a premium on carnage. What is it about us that's creating this ever-growing market for live and up-close scenes of shootouts, car wrecks and animals mauling humans?

I rarely watch these shows, not because I'm better than anyone else, but because I never warmed to television that didn't include sports, Homer Simpson or Dick Van Dyke.

I can understand the horrific fascination or, less plausibly, the argument that the public needs to see what police and paramedics are really up against. But how many times can you watch 17 different angles of a bloody, razor-clutching corpse and still get a kick out of it?

Aren't we challenged enough, do we have so little adventure in our own lives that we must be satiated by watching someone else's life crashing and burning? This virtual violence is perhaps a descendant of our Wild West, frontier-violence roots. Perhaps starving to see blood is a natural phenomenon.

But boy, what a bunch of unevolved, spittle-drooling animals it plays us for.

No question, death, other peoples' anyway, is exciting. But art can be exciting too. So can the outdoors, history, music, literature, geology, food, theater, gardens, animals, oceans, mountains and people.

Life is more exciting than death every time. If we could move our focus away from the death-inspired misfortunes of other people to the life-inspired fortunes of ourselves, society would doubtless take a step forward.

And Amanda Smailes might still be alive.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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