The case of a rich Texas teenager who received probation but no jail time after killing four people in a drunk driving car crash in June has sparked a new debate about money, power, and punishment after the teen’s defense team argued he was the victim of “affluenza,” or the failure of his wealthy parents to set boundaries.
Judge Jean Boyd accepted Ethan Couch’s guilty pleas for killing four people and injuring nine, but the punishment – most likely a lengthy stay at a $1,200-a-day California drug treatment facility – brought widespread outrage because it seemed to suggest that the judge bought the defense theory “that because he has gotten off without serious punishment in the past, he cannot be seriously punished in this case either,” as Jaquielynn Floyd of the Dallas Morning News writes Thursday.
Judge Boyd made no further comments on her ruling, and has said she won’t comment on the case because of ethical restraints. She had previously said she will not run for reelection to her seat.
Judges in Texas are allowed to consider “diminished culpability and great prospects for reform” when a defendant is juvenile. According to the liberal political blog Think Progress, sentences for intoxicated manslaughter in Texas usually range between five and 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors pointed out that there are drug and alcohol treatment programs in prison, but the judge noted in court comments that the facility where he’s currently housed – a California treatment facility that offers equine sports, yoga and massages – would be a better fit.
The defense team argued that the sentence was just. They said if Couch had been sentenced to the maximum, 20 years in jail, he most likely would have been released within a few years. Under this sentence, Couch will remain “under the thumb” of the justice system for seven years, and will be resentenced to 10 years in jail if he breaks the conditions of his probation.
But that logic didn’t appease the families of the victims, who said they had forgiven Couch, but expected him to see the inside of a prison cell for his actions.
Couch’s blood alcohol levels were three times the legal limit when he slammed at 70 miles per hour into four people trying to help a stranded motorist near Ft. Worth, the result of which was a crash scene that first responders likened to a plane crash. The teenager had had several other run-ins with the law, as well, none of which led to any consequences at home, a defense psychiatrist testified.
"Money always seems to keep Ethan out of trouble," Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, told the Dallas-Fort Worth Fox affiliate. "This was one time I did ask the court for justice and for money not to prevail."
The prosecutor in the case, Richard Alpert, warned the judge that allowing the family's wealth to once again insulate the teenager could have tragic consequences.
“There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here,” Mr. Alpert told the court.
The sentencing touched a raw nerve in a country that occasionally fails to uphold its founding principles of equal treatment for all. A May survey by the Pew Research Center reported that 66 percent of Americans say social and economic inequality has increased in the United States.
It’s of course not unusual for defense attorneys to blame a guilty person’s upbringing for criminality, but in most of those cases “the perps were poor kids from rough neighborhoods … [who] went to the penitentiary because the judge didn’t buy the blame-it-on-the-folks defense,” Ms. Floyd writes in the Dallas Morning News.
Judicial lenience has also been in the news lately, given the case of a Montana judge who in August gave a former teacher a 30-day jail sentence for the rape of a 14-year-old girl who subsequently killed herself.
In his testimony in the Couch case, the defense psychiatrist, Dr. G. Dick Miller, said Couch’s parents gave him whatever he wanted and gave him “freedoms no young person should have," meaning that the teenager essentially raised himself.
“This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller added. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”
Now, the Couch family is facing $20 million worth of civil lawsuits resulting from the crash.