Teen avoids jail with affluence defense in deadly drunken-driving case

Legal experts say ruling is symbolic of larger problems in criminal justice system

Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old convicted of killing four people in a drunken-driving accident, arrives at juvenile court on Tuesday.

Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager who killed four people while driving drunk was sentenced this week to 10 years of probation in lieu of jail time, after the defense argued that the 16-year-old was a product of “affluenza” — a condition in which growing up wealthy prevents children from understanding the links between their behavior and the consequences because they are rarely held accountable for their actions.

The judge’s light sentence has outraged the families of the victims and baffled some legal experts.

Couch was tried as a juvenile and charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter for the June 15 crash, according to a local Texas ABC affiliate. Youth pastor Brian Jennings, 24-year-old Breanna Mitchel and mother and daughter Hollie Boyles and Shelby Boyles were killed in the crash. Several others were injured.

Couch was driving 60 to 70 mph in a 40-mph zone and had a blood alcohol content of .24, three times the legal limit for drivers in Texas. Testimony indicated that toxicology reports also found Valium in his system, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper.

Intoxication manslaughter is a second-degree felony in Texas and usually carries a sentence of two to 20 years in prison.

The lenient sentence, issued Tuesday, disappointed the victims’ families. Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, told The Associated Press that Couch’s family’s wealth helped him avoid jail. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”

Couch’s defense argued that he should not be jailed for 20 years because he suffered from “affluenza.” Dr. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist who testified on Couch’s behalf, argued that Couch was a product of a lifestyle in which wealth brought privilege and he had faced no consequences for his bad behavior.

WFAA ABC reported that Miller said the teen’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.”

As an example, the psychologist cited an incident in which Couch, then 15, was caught in a parked vehicle with a passed-out and undressed 14-year-old girl. He was never punished for his behavior, the psychologist said.

Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth juvenile court agreed with the defense and decided that probation and therapy would be the best course of action, according to the Star-Telegram.

The paper reported that the judge said that she was familiar with programs available in the Texas juvenile-justice system and that Couch might not get the kind of intensive therapy in a state-run program that he could receive at the facility suggested by his attorneys.

Couch’s father will pay $450,000 a year for his son to live in a small, private home in California, where he will receive intensive one-on-one therapy.

Scott Brown, Couch’s lead lawyer, said Couch could have been freed after only two years, even if he received the full 20-year sentence. Instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” Brown told the Star-Telegram.

Some legal experts questioned the light sentence, calling it symbolic of larger failings in the criminal-justice system.

“I think it’s the most absurd outcome I’ve ever heard of, and that’s in a system that is already absurdly imbalanced. It makes a mockery of equality and equal standing before the law,” Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera.

“This is the same sort of thinking that allows rich prisoners to buy more comfortable jail cells, as they are able to do in parts of California. Or that pathologizes and profiles not just the problems of the poor individually but entire races and neighborhoods and age groups — as in young black men — while turning richer, whiter, more educated bad actors as well as celebrities into romantic outlaws,” she said.

Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley Law School, told Al Jazeera that while there are factors that mitigate criminal liability — such as mental illness, age and developmental disabilities — economic status is not one of them. “It just doesn’t make sense. The notion that because someone is wealthy, we shouldn’t hold them accountable is nutty.”

Al Jazeera approached the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for comment, but the agency would not comment on the case.

Shaunna Jennings, the pastor’s widow, said her family had forgiven the teen but believed a sterner punishment was needed.

“You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this,” she said. “My fear is that it will get you out of this.”

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