Steinmetz's death a life lesson

Saturday, November 21, 1998

BY The Cincinnati Enquirer

Before the drawing was held in the bicycle raffle, before their origami cups were put to the soda pop tolerance test, before the construction and competition of paper airplanes, the Cub Scouts paused to pray for Artie Steinmetz.

A few hours earlier, at a neighboring parish in Northern Kentucky, a funeral service had been held for a football player who died too soon. So when the boisterous boys of Pack 90 assembled Thursday evening at St. Joseph's in Crescent Springs, Dave Heidrich was determined that Steinmetz' tragic passing serve some purpose.

The towering cubmaster spoke softly, and for a few moments focused the fleeting attention of the scouts on the Sunday morning crash that killed Steinmetz and Scott Brock. He observed that they had been drinking before their fatal drive, and he spoke of the difficulties of growing up and the need for good decisions.

It was less a lecture than a plea, one man's attempt to turn tragedy into illumination. Explaining the world to small children is a full-time job anymore, what with all the lechery in the White House and Michael Jordan on strike. But when life provides us with important illustrations, it is vital that they be pointed out for the edification of all.

Prosecuting University of Kentucky football center Jason Watts for his culpability in Sunday's crash can not bring Artie Steinmetz or Scott Brock back to life. It can not lessen the grief of their families, or bring comfort to their friends. It might not even make a material difference in the shattered life Watts has left to live, a life which will surely be shaped by the impact of this accident.

Justice for all

Yet the grim judicial process must proceed for the sake of the boys in Pack 90, and for all fellow travelers on the roads of America. Crimes must have consequences. Artie Steinmetz should not have died in vain.

Steinmetz' parents have urged Pulaski County prosecutors to be merciful. Their remarkable capacity for forgiveness was revealed Thursday when they asked Watts' parents to sit with them at their son's funeral, a gesture UK coach Hal Mumme called "one of the most touching things I've ever seen."

Yet Jason Watts' guilt is hardly mitigated by his personal relationships with the deceased. Anyone who drives a vehicle after too much drinking endangers everyone, not just those he has been drinking with. Who gets killed in drunken wrecks is relatively random.

Larry Mahoney never intended to take out 27 people before he struck that church bus in Carrollton, Ky., in 1988. His crime was in his failure to consider the potential consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol. To suggest Jason Watts should be held to a different standard because his victims were also his friends is to confuse effect with cause.

These are hard truths, and they are difficult to declare without sounding sanctimonious. Those of us who were once young and stupid know well the relief of making it safely home, spared the ordeal of a sobriety test. If you're lucky, you live long enough to know better.

Jason Watts has lived, but he is a long way from lucky. He is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 17 to answer two counts of second-degree manslaughter and one count of drunken driving, charges that could put him in prison for up to 20 years. Even at that, officers of Mothers Against Drunk Driving say they would prefer Watts be charged with wanton murder.

On one level, Jason Watts has already been punished plenty. He has survived a wreck in which two of his friends died, a one-car accident that may be entirely attributable to his alcohol consumption. He can never be the same after such an experience, and he can be made no more remorseful by serving a jail sentence.

But to forego formal charges in deference to the feelings of Steinmetz' family is to forsake justice for the sake of sentiment. I can't let it go at that. I have a Cub Scout to consider.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.



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