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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ethan Couch and the "Affluenza" Defense Mass Manslaughter Case

     On the night of June 15, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and seven of  his friends stole two cases of beer from a local Walmart store. A few hours later, Couch, behind the wheel of his wealthy family's F-350 pickup, sped down a poorly lit rural road. With his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and seven passengers in the cab--two in the back of the truck--he lost control of the vehicle.

     Couch's truck plowed into vehicles parked along the side of the road. The two boys in the bed of the truck were flung out of the pickup and severely injured. Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down was off the road, was killed. Brian Jennings, Shelby Boyles, and Hollie Boyles, people who had pulled off the road to help Breanna, also died in the crash.

     Ethan Couch, on the advise of his attorneys, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. This meant the only issue left to be resolved in the case involved his punishment. Was he a troubled kid who needed psychological treatment, or a spoiled brat who required incarceration? If punishment was appropriate in this case, how severe? Did it matter that he was only sixteen? These were questions that would have to be resolved by juvenile court judge Jean Boyd.

     At Ethan Couch's sentence hearing held in Fort Worth on December 10, 2013, Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert proposed that the defendant be incarcerated for twenty years. In addressing Judge Boyd, Alpert said, "If the boy, who is from an affluent family, is cushioned by the family's wealth, there can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the leniency he received here." The prosecutor pointed out that inmates in Texas who needed it received drug and alcohol treatment.

     One of the defendant's attorneys, Scott Brown, argued that his client required rehabilitation more than he needed treatment. (Perhaps, but the families of the victims needed for him to be punished. Sentencing should be more than just about what's good for the defendant.)

     Couch's attorney recommended a two-year treatment program at a $1,200-a-day rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, California followed by a period of probation. The $450,000-a-year program in southern California featured equine sports, yoga, and messages. (It also probably featured rubbing shoulders with a lot of drug-addled Hollywood celebrities.) According to attorney Brown, the boy's parents were willing to pick up the California rehabilitation tab.

     Dr. Dick Miller, a clinical psychologist from Bedford, Texas testified at the sentencing hearing on the defendant's behalf. According to Dr. Miller, Ethan Couch suffered from what he called "affluenza," a syndrome caused by rich parents who didn't set limits and discipline their children. As a result of being spoiled rotten, Ethan didn't know how to behave appropriately. (Dr. Miller's notion of social insanity as a mitigating factor in sentencing is patently absurd.)

     Judge Boyd stunned the prosecutor and friends and families of the four victims when she sentenced the teenager to ten years of probation. The judge said she would find a treatment program for the boy in the state of Texas. If he violated the terms of his probation, he could be sent to a juvenile detection facility.

     Eric Boyles had lost his wife Hollie and his daughter Shelby in Couch's drunken crash. In speaking to a CNN correspondent, he said, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day….Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I feel that money did prevail."

     In responding to Judge Boyd's decision, prosecutor Alpert told a reporter that "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but we have no power under the law to change or overturn it."

     In horrific homicides like this, when there is no retribution, the public loses confidence in the criminal justice system. While rich people do not always get their way in criminal court, the public perception is that they do.

     The so-called "affluenza" case jumped back in the news in December 2015 after a video appeared online featuring Ethan Couch and several other youngsters playing beer pong. This was a clear violation of the terms of Couch's probation. When the kid's probation officer lost touch with him, the authorities in Tarrant County issued a warrant for his arrest. Also missing was Tonya Couch, the boy's mother with whom he had been living.

     Because the local authorities believed the boy and his mother might have fled the country to avoid the possibility of Ethan's incarceration, FBI agents and U. S. Marshal's office investigators were involved in the hunt for the mother and her son.

     On December 29, 2015, Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

     Upon the teen's return to the U.S., a judge transferred Couch's case from the juvenile system to adult court. In 2016, pursuant to his probation violation, the judge sentenced Couch to two years behind bars.

     Couch's attorneys appealed the adult prison sentence to the Texas Supreme Court on the grounds the judge did not have the legal authority to make the transfer to adult court. The attorneys asked the high court to order Couch's release from prison. The Texas Supreme Court denied that request. Young Mr. Couch would do his time behind bars.

        

2 comments:

  1. As Chris Rock said in one of his routines;
    "O. J. Simpson didn't play the race card. He played his bank card. If he'd driven a bus instead of playing football, he'd just be Orenthal the bus driving murderer."

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's time to find a cure for affluenza.

    ReplyDelete