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'Affluenza' case moved to adult court: why that may be what defense wanted

A judge has ordered the case of Ethan Couch, dubbed the 'affluenza' teen, to be moved to adult court, where he will hear charges of violating his probation. Ironically, the move could see him spending less time behind bars.

LM Otero/AP
Sergio Molina is pushed out of juvenile court by his mother Maria Lemus followed by his brother Alex Lemus after a hearing for Ethan Couch Friday, in Fort Worth, Texas. Molina was a victim of the fatal drunken-driving wreck in 2013 that killed four people for which Couch was convicted of causing.

Ethan Couch, the “affluenza” teen convicted of four counts of manslaughter in a drunk-driving incident, is to answer charges in an adult court.

The latest case seeks to answer the question of whether Mr. Couch violated the terms of his probation, a charge precipitated by a video that shows Couch at a party where alcohol was served.

Ironically, moving the case to adult court could mean the defendant serves less jail time than if he were dealt with in a juvenile court, causing further exasperation for those who already decried the original sentence as too lenient.

Had Couch faced the charges of violating his probation in juvenile court, and been found guilty, he could eventually have faced a prison term of 10 years, once he aged out of the juvenile system at 19.

Moving the proceedings to adult court, however, means he faces a maximum of 120 days in prison. It is likely for this reason that Couch’s attorney, Scott Brown, made no protest at the decision to move his client out of the juvenile system.

That said, if Couch were to violate his probation again, he could face up to ten years’ prison time for each of the four victims.

The “affluenza” defense used in Couch’s original trial – a claim that the defendant’s coddled upbringing removed any comprehension of the difference between right and wrong – ensured this case a degree of notoriety that keeps it fixed in the glare of public scrutiny.

While the judge ultimately declined to accept that the boy’s parents were at fault, citing instead the state’s efforts to focus on rehabilitation of young offenders rather than punishment as he passed judgement, the leniency of the sentence nonetheless sparked fierce debate.

The term “affluenza” struck a chord with Americans, with the case coming to symbolize perceived disparities in how the justice system treats the wealthy compared with poor minorities, as The Monitor reported.

“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.

Couch’s subsequent flight to Mexico with his mother, after the video surfaced appearing to show him participating in drinking games, followed by deportation back to the United States, added yet another layer of intrigue.

Among those present at the latest hearing was Sergio Molina, who was riding in the back of Couch’s pickup and left paralyzed by the accident. Also present were his mother and brother, Alexander Lemus.

"What's 120 days in county?" Lemus asked. "That's nothing. We need help. They have so much money, they need to pay."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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