With 'affluenza' teen's capture, questions about justice in America

The case of Ethan Couch, who was sentenced to parole after a drunk driving incident that killed four people, symbolized the extent to which class and race play a role in the justice system, some observers say.

Fiscalia General del Estado de Jalisco/Reuters
Ethan Couch, pictured in a handout photograph from the Jalisco state prosecutor office, was taken into custody in Mexico. Couch was a fugitive after breaking his probation sentence for killing four people while driving drunk. Couch, nicknamed the "affluenza" teen, was serving 10 years probation for intoxication manslaughter in the 2013 incident.

By many accounts, what Ethan Couch received in 2013 did not represent justice. The then-16-year-old was sentenced by a Texas judge to probation and a California rehab center after pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter after driving drunk and killing four people in a high-speed crash outside Fort Worth.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said that the justice system struggled to fulfill its promise "the first time" in the Couch case.

Mr. Couch is likely to face a tougher sentence as he’s extradited from Mexico after being caught Monday night in Puerta Vallarta, accused of breaking his parole agreement.

During the trial, a psychologist dubbed Couch’s condition “affluenza” – a term he later regretted using – suggesting that the teen’s wealthy parents were partly responsible for an upbringing where he never faced real consequences for his actions. The term struck a chord with Americans, with the case coming to symbolize the extent to which the justice system treats rich whites differently than poor blacks.

The timing of his capture is likely to once again raise similar questions about equal justice under the law, observers say.

The manhunt for Couch concluded on the same day that a grand jury in Cleveland declined to bring charges against two police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. The boy had been playing with a pellet gun in a park when he was fatally shot.

“You can’t help but be struck by the juxtaposition of the Tamir Rice grand jury decision and [the Couch case],” says Daniel Filler, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “What we see is how apparently neutral rules are always applied case by case, whether it’s parole officers or judges or police officers, based on cultural factors.”

It isn’t the first time that the Couch case has been juxtaposed uncomfortably with the death of a black teenager. For many Americans transfixed by the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 and the trial of the man who killed him the following year, the verdict in the Couch case offered more distinct “proof of separate justice systems in this country, one for the rich and another for the poor, and Ethan became the face of wealth and privilege,” as Michael Mooney wrote in Dallas Magazine for a May feature on Couch and his parents.

The Couch case – along with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Martin’s shooter – came one year before the street protest crescendo that built in the wake of a series of high-profile deaths of black men and women at police hands around the country.

“What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times ... what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?" Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, told The Associated Press in 2013.

A growing list of such disparities have affected how Americans think about how punishment is meted out in the United States. The Pew Research Center recently reported that only 32 percent of Americans think the country has made enough changes to its justice system, down from 49 percent in 2014. Likewise, the percentage of Americans who say that more change is needed rose from 46 to 59 percent in the same span.

During the Couch trial, the judge ultimately disregarded the argument that his parents were at fault. Instead, she kept Couch out of jail partly under a state initiative to focus juvenile delinquents on rehabilitation instead of punishment. The sentence came after Ethan pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter.

The terms of his parole suggest he could now face up to 10 years in prison. That would represent half the amount requested by prosecutors after the crash, in which Couch barreled his dad’s F-350 truck into a group of good Samaritans helping a stranded driver. His blood alcohol level three hours after the crash was three times the legal limit, according to court testimony.

Whatever the judge’s reasons, the sentencing sparked outrage and raised larger questions about US justice. “Being rich is now a get-out-of-jail-free card,” read one headline in the magazine The Week. At least symbolically, the Couch verdict stands as a pronounced American moment, where deeply held misgivings about justice were highlighted through what seemed an obvious injustice.

Such biases are notoriously difficult to tease out by policy changes alone. Yet what’s unmistakable, Professor Filler says, is that events like the capture of Couch in Mexico raise public awareness about glitches in the promise of equal protection, which in turn can act as a check on the law.

“Every time you add a layer of risk that someone will detect misconduct, I think you increase the chances that misconduct [in the justice system] will be reduced,” Filler says.

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