Closing a case that ripped at sensitivities about privilege and punishment, Texas Judge Jean Boyd on Wednesday reaffirmed her decision to send a reckless rich kid, 16-year-old Ethan Couch, to a tony treatment facility instead of to state prison, for killing four people while driving drunk.
Wednesday’s final sentencing hearing came after victims' families made repeated pleas for Ethan to face more serious repercussions for his actions. Last summer he was found to be three times over the legal alcohol limit when he crashed a heavy-duty truck into a group of people helping a stranded motorist by the side of the road, near Fort Worth, Texas. Four people died, and two were seriously injured.
The case, especially Judge Boyd's acceptance of the defense’s argument that Ethan was incapable of making good decisions because he had been a coddled, spoiled rich kid whose parents set no limits, sparked ridicule and anger – and, in some quarters, allegations of unequal justice under the law for the affluent.
"It's hard to object to parents who do everything in their power to help their son,” said Daniel Filler, a law professor at Drexel University’s School of Law and an expert in juvenile justice, via e-mail. “But this is the true nature of 'affluenza': Only wealthy parents can pay to divert their child from a run-down jail into a fancy in-patient rehab facility."
Some psychologists also questioned the judge's sentence, noting that “affluenza” is not an accepted medical term.
On Wednesday, Ethan’s lawyers thanked the judge and blamed “media distortions” for the angry response to her ruling, apparently discounting complaints from victims' families that Ethan once again got a pass from those responsible for him. Prosecutors had requested a 20-year prison term; instead, Ethan will be under a 10-year suspension, which means that a further slip could mean a spell in prison.
Still, some experts have defended the decision, saying the judge simply followed an accepted axiom of Texas law – that when minors commit unintended crimes, judges should take into consideration their greater likelihood of rehabilitation than in the case of an adult.
“What you’re seeing is pretty common in the sense that, when there is a lot of harm, victims tend to want a lot of punishment. But if you look at how crimes are graded, the most serious crimes are the ones that are intentional … and that doesn’t necessarily coincide with people’s emotional responses,” says Sandra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.
Texas has begun treating juveniles differently than in the past, because research shows that harsh punishment of young people who had no intention of hurting others is counterproductive, Ms. Thompson adds. In that sense, Ethan’s family wealth may not have played a role in the judge’s verdict, she says.
Ethan’s rehabilitation will take place at a $450,000-a-year California treatment facility that features horse-riding therapy. His father will pay for the treatment, the judge ordered.
One of Ethan’s lawyers said her own interactions with the teenager suggest that the judge understood the stakes.
Attorney Reagan Wynn told CNN in December that Judge Boyd “specifically mentioned that [affluenza] was not a basis for her decision. She heard all the evidence and she made what she thought was the appropriate disposition. I think he can be rehabilitated given intensive therapy, and I hope that he gets it.”
Moreover, even if the pseudo-scientific “affluenza” designation, made by the psychologist who testified for the defense, didn’t play a key role in the sentencing, the idea that wealth can invite a sense of emptiness and desperation may have some scientific merit.
In “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence,” author Jessie O’Neill describes how people who feel entitled to everything their money can buy sometimes suffer psychological injury as a result. What’s more, a 2010 study from the University of Georgia found that the level of self-control people exhibit can be linked to the level of self-control that people in their immediate surroundings show.
Such explanations, however, ring hollow to those who lost loved ones to Ethan’s actions.
"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, in December. "This was one time I did ask the court for justice and for money not to prevail."
The justice system must not appear callous to such views, lest people start to “attempt to take the law into their own hands,” says the University of Houston's Thompson.
“It is important for the system to appear legitimate, and it is possible that strong emotion has some truth to it, and that perhaps there should have been some kind of sanction that would have felt more like real punishment to the victims,” she says.