Texas Teen Avoids Prison After Defense Claims He Was Too Rich to Know Better

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 12 2013 12:47 PM

A Wealthy Teen's Defense For a Deadly Drunken-Driving Crash: "Affluenza"

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Ethan Couch, 16, avoided prison time after his lawyers offered the "affluenza" defense

Screenshot from ABC affiliate WFAA

Here's an Internet outrage-inducing story that has been bubbling up for the past few days and appears to have finally hit critical mass: A Texas judge on Tuesday sentenced a wealthy 16-year-old boy to 10 years of probation for a horrific drunken driving crash that killed four people and seriously injured two others this summer. But it's not the relatively lenient sentence that has people up in arms—it's the apparent reasoning behind it. Here's the ABC affiliate in Dallas with the details of the teen's defense:

Prior to sentencing, a psychologist called by the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller,  testified that [Ethan] Couch's life could be salvaged with one to two years' treatment and no contact with his parents. ... Miller said Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have." He called Couch a product of "affluenza," where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.
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He said Couch got whatever he wanted. As an example, Miller said Couch's parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed, 14-year-old girl. Miller also pointed out that Couch was allowed to drive at age 13. He said the teen was emotionally flat and needed years of therapy.

According to police, Couch was going 70 miles-per-hour in his father's Ford F-350 pickup in a 40 mph zone when he lost control and started a deadly chain of collisions that claimed the lives of: 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell, whose car had broken down on the side of the road; Hollie Boyles and her 21-year-old daughter Shelby, who lived nearby and had come outside to help Mitchell; and Brian Jennings, a youth pastor who was also playing the role of good samaritan. Two of the seven passengers riding in Couch's truck were also seriously injured.

Earlier in the night, police say that several of the passengers were caught on camera stealing two cases of beer from a local Walmart. At the time of the crash, Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit for an adult, and also had traces of Valium in his system, according to police. He pleaded guilty last week to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

Now's a good time to take a quick step back and remember that the destined-to-be-mocked-by-a-hashtag "affluenza" excuse wasn't actually mentioned by the Judge Jean Boyd when she handed out her sentence. Indeed, Boyd has yet to publicly explain her rationale for handing out 10 years of probation instead of the 20-year prison sentence that prosecutors and the victims' families had asked for. Still, it certainly appears as though the judge bought at least some of what the defense was selling, which in addition to the idea that the family's wealth left the teen apparently unable to understand right from wrong also focused on his parents' strained relationship. ("This kid has been in a system that’s sick," Miller said. "If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.")

Given the "affluenza" defense—along with the fact that the teen's parents will be the ones paying for his stay at a $450,000-a-year, in-patient rehab facility near Newport Beach, Calif.—one doesn't have to squint to see what looks an awful lot like a double-standard predicated on the teen's family wealth. "Money always seems to keep [the kid] out of trouble," said Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash. "Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different." Or, as Dallas Morning News editorial writer Mike Hashimoto put it Wednesday: "Despite all the death in his wake, Couch didn’t learn a thing he didn’t already know: It’s far better to come from that wealthy place where actions seldom have those nasty old consequences. That’s for other folks."

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.