Pressure is building on a Texas judge to revisit her decision to give a rich teenager what critics call a slap on the wrist after lawyers said that “affluenza” – a nonmedical term for people whose wealth insulates them from consequence – may have played a role in a drunk driving crash that killed four people near Fort Worth in June.
Tarrant County, Texas, prosecutors point out that Judge Jean Boyd declined to sentence 16-year-old Ethan Couch on two intoxication assault charges to which he also pleaded guilty, meaning she still could give the teenager up to three years in a Texas juvenile detention hall.
Last week, Judge Boyd sentenced Ethan to 10 years of probation and a stay at an exclusive California drug treatment facility instead of the 20 years in prison that prosecutors had demanded. The facility uses one-on-one treatment and activities such as therapy with horses and massage to help addicts turn their lives around.
The ruling came after a defense psychologist testified that Ethan’s parents had never set any boundaries for the child, giving him anything he wanted – including his own party pad – while leaving him to essentially raise himself. That left him tragically unable to comprehend the relationship between action and consequence, the psychologist said.
The judge apparently bought the defense (she has not commented on her ruling, and has said she won’t), noting in court that she didn’t believe treatment programs in prison would help the boy. Texas judges are allowed to consider “diminished culpability and great prospects for reform” when a defendant is under 18.
Prosecutors and family members of the victims said the court, by not giving him jail time, was simply reinforcing the notion that, because of his wealth, Ethan could never get into real trouble, or even have to bother paying for his actions. His parents are being sued in civil court for millions of dollars in damages.
News that prosecutors were still pushing for jail time was applauded by families of the victims, many of whom said they had forgiven Ethan but thought he deserved to see the inside of a prison cell.
“The fact that just because he has money – his parents have money – that he walked on this is sheer ridiculousness,” one family member, Joseph Anz, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper. “It’s disheartening for everyone in our family.”
After stealing cases of beer from Wal-Mart, Ethan, driving a large pickup truck with friends piled in the back, plowed at 70 miles per hour into a group of people, including a youth pastor helping a stranded motorist. Four people died and nine were injured, including a rider in Ethan’s truck who remains paralyzed. Ethan fled the scene before he was caught by police. His blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Boyd’s ruling caused widespread outrage in a country already steeped in a debate about income and social inequality. Two-thirds of Americans, according to a Pew poll in May, believe social and economic inequality is getting worse in America.
In the aftermath of the ruling, medical experts have also lambasted the ruling, calling the “affluenza” diagnosis a bogus one that sends the wrong message not only to Ethan, but to society more broadly. They say it suggests simply being rich can be a handicap that deserves coddling by a justice system that’s otherwise quick to mete out swift and often harsh justice to poorer defendants who commit even nonviolent crimes.
The sentence “plinks on the nerves of race, privilege, junk science, and recent pivots in our American values whereby money outweighs morals,” writes neuropsychologist Michelle London in the Daily Beast. It “brings a neon highlighter to what so many of us already unfortunately know and accept to be true about the gross inequities in our justice system: privilege still exists and money can buy special treatment.”
Some lawyers, however, came to the judge’s defense, noting that Ethan did plead guilty to the crimes, and cautioning Americans to not judge the case simply along lines of rich and poor.
“At its core, affluenza was a poorly chosen catchphrase that obfuscated the important underlying point: that, rich or poor, this was another child who, according to an expert qualified by the court, suffered from the same lack of supervision and guidance that plagues millions of American children, irrespective of class. That's all,” writes criminal defense attorney Danny Cevallos on CNN.com.
“Many are offended at this idea because the child comes from a wealthy family,” Mr. Cevallos writes. “But being so offended reflects a belief that children of wealth can never have any developmental problems, or be neglected in a way that affects their adolescent judgment.”
Kimberly Priest Johnson, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas, told the Star-Telegram that she doesn’t believe Boyd will bite on the prosecutor’s motion to sentence Ethan on the two outstanding guilty pleas, especially since judicial decorum precludes judges from heeding public scrutiny.
“I would be surprised if a judge gave jail time,” Ms. Johnson told the North Texas newspaper. “After she’s already given probation for the manslaughter charge, then to turn around and give jail time for the assault charge? That doesn’t make sense.… I’m sure she stands behind the sentence she gave and has her reasons for it.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a gubernatorial contender, has said his office is checking whether Boyd’s decision can be appealed, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis this week called the sentence a “disgrace” that may need a legislative fix.
“This case is going to be a very interesting sort of crucible, a test, of where society will go and where courts will go,” says Rick Meeves, director of adolescent clinical services at CRC Health Group in Provo, Utah. “The problem right now is that the next judge he may be in front of will have to decide if he’s a victim of affluence, a victim of the courts, or a victim of poor parenting. That’s the challenge, and not just in this case, but for a whole bunch of other kids and a whole bunch of other prosecuting attorneys and other psychologists – do we blame the kid, do we blame the parents, or do we blame affluence?”