Judge Gives Drunk Teen A Break, Likely Due To 'Affluenza': Would You Have Done The Same?

December 13, 2013

On the evening of June 15, 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and his friends stole two cases of beer from a Texas Walmart. They made their getaway in Couch's Ford F-350.

A few hours later, Couch slammed that truck into a group of pedestrians who were trying to fix an SUV stranded on the side of the road. All four -- Hollie Boyles, 52, her daughter, Shelby Boyles, 21, Brian Jennings, 43, and Breanna Mitchell, 24 -- were killed. Two juveniles riding in the back of Couch's truck were severely injured.

During the ensuing trial, a psychologist for the defense diagnosed Couch with "affluenza". It's a term that's been around for about 15 years, and it refers to the particular mindset that young people from wealthy families often have -- a mindset that assumes their mothers and fathers can get them out of any situation, no matter how sticky. "Spoiled" is a close synonym. "Entitled" is, too. We can think of a few others.

Judge Jean Boyd didn't cite "affluenza" in her sentencing, but most onlookers believe that it was behind her decision to sentence Couch to ten years probation instead of the 20-year jail term that prosecutors sought.

Couch's attorney insists that probation is, in fact, a harsher punishment: if he'd been sent to prison, Couch could've been free after two years, but this way, he's wrapped up in the judicial system for the next decade, with no way out.

The families of the victims, as you can imagine, feel differently. 


Couch's attorney isn't completely wrong. Keeping a young person like Couch on probation for ten years is, in some ways, a more severe punishment than prison. And part of us appreciates Judge Boyd's desire to put the young man in rehab: prison inmates in the U.S. have a high rate of recidivism, meaning that prisoner Couch would likely end up in jail again after his release. Getting him into treatment, gives him a better shot at a productive future.

On the other hand, the four people Couch killed have no chance of a productive future. There's no way that Boyd's sentence could've brought any of them back from the dead, but it seems a little unfair that Couch's life gets such careful consideration while his victims receive no such benefit.

Also troubling is the issue of race: Couch, as it turns out, isn't just from a wealthy family, he's also white. Would the judge have made the decision she did if Couch were African American or Latino? Or if he were poor? There's no way of knowing for sure, but America's judicial system doesn't have a great track record of putting whites and minorities on equal footing.

But most offensive of all is the possibility that Boyd may have considered Couch's "affluenza" in his sentencing. "Affluenza" isn't a disease, it's not a mental illness, it's a mindset -- a warped one, to be sure, but a mindset. Using "affluenza" as a defense is just as inexcusable as Colin Ferguson's "black rage" defense in the wake of the Long Island Railroad massacre 20 years ago, or the "gay panic" defense that Matthew Shepard's killers tried to trot out in 1999.

What all three of those defenses do is absolve the wrongdoer of any guilt -- or worse, like other "abuse excuses", they shift blame to the dead victim. We understand that the circumstances of life can make people think strange things. But there's a big, big difference between thinking those things and acting on them. 

Couch may be young, he may have been drunk on the night of the accident, but sentencing him to probation instead of jail time gets him off the hook -- which is exactly what he'd expected his parents to do all along. And it sets a dangerous precedent for future cases.

The prosecution rests. If you'd like to rebut, sound off in the comments below.


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