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Money Talks

March 13, 2014

By Bobbye Pyke

Here are the facts. One June 15, 2013, Ethan Couch, a 16 year old from Texas, crashed a pickup truck into a group of pedestrians who had stopped on the side of the road to aid a motorist whose vehicle had stalled. Four people were killed and nine were injured in the crash. Earlier that evening, Couch was seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Walmart store. At the time of the crash, seven passengers were in Couch's father's Ford F-350 pickup truck, he was going 70 mph in a designated 40 mph zone, and he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit.
Couch's truck swerved off the road and into Breanna Mitchell's stalled sport utility vehicle before plowing into Brian Jennings' parked car, which in turn hit an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle. Couch's truck then flipped over and hit a tree. Four people were killed including Mitchell and Jennings. Couch and his seven teen passengers, none of whom were wearing seat belts, survived, as did two children in the Jennings' car and the two people in the Volkswagen.
A psychologist hired as an expert witness for the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his behavior to consequences due to the fact that his parents had taught him that wealth buys privilege.
Instead of jail time, the judge ruled that Couch would receive ten years probation and would spend the time in a rehabilitation facility near Newport Beach, California that would cost the teen's family approximately $500,000 annually. The facility offers a treatment program that includes horse riding, mixed martial arts, massage and cookery, a swimming pool, basketball, and six acres of land.
So this child consumes alcohol and drugs, drives his father's vehicle with his unrestrained friends, smashes into a stalled vehicle, and kills four people. He receives a light sentence based on the idea that he never had to learn about the consequences of ones actions that in turn does not require him to take consequences for his actions.
A psychologist, Dr. Suniya S. Luther, states that research shows that feelings of entitlement among affluent youth is a social problem and that "we are setting a double standard for the rich and poor. 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 become of how he was raised?"
If Couch's family didn't have wealth, Couch never would have received such a light sentence. His family's wealth was intrinsic to the judge's reasoning for the sentence. An offender without his means would have ended up in the overcrowded, publicly supported Texas juvenile justice system where the judge stated Couch, "might not get the kind of intensive therapy in a state-run program that he could receive at the California facility suggested by his attorneys."
And this might be true. I'm sure the posh treatment center in California will provide much better quality of care than Couch could ever receive in the Texas juvenile system. But what kind of precedent are we setting? Those who are too wealthy are not responsible for their actions? The wealthy pay their own way to stay out of prison and enjoy a glorified spa vacation and the poor go to prison whether they will receive the treatment they need or not?
Psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg argued that Couch's defense made no sense because Couch could have learned that bad behavior has consequences in other areas of his life but instead received a sentence to a luxurious rehabilitation home, reinforcing the message "that his wealth and privilege can obliviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior."
The judge who issued the verdict, state District Judge Jean Boyd, gave a much harsher sentence to another 16-year-old intoxicated driver ten years ago. In February of 2004, Boyd sentenced Eric Bradlee Miller to 20 years, saying, "the court is aware you had a sad childhood...I hope you will take advantage of the services (offered by the Texas Youth Commission) and turn your life around." Miller killed only one victim, not four, and had a much lower blood alcohol level, 0.11 compared to Couch's 0.24. The big difference? Miller was from a much poorer family.
Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash said, "Nowhere in this process did Ethan ever say to the families, to the court, "I'm so sorry for what happened." Nowhere did Ethan express any remorse or anything." Money talks, and apparently, the justice system listens.

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