This utterly ridiculous “affluenza” defense has just been gnawing at me ever since I first read about it after the verdict came in on December 10, 2013. What in the world was that judge thinking? Does the defense really believe this crap? Where is the fairness, the justice, in this unholy mess? What about the lives lost and destroyed?
Let me just give some background for those readers who might have missed this “affluenza” story.
It was just before midnight on Saturday, June 15, 2013. It was Father’s Day weekend. Breanna Mitchell, age 24, was coming home after helping to cater an event at a Fort Worth, Texas museum. She had a tire blowout and her white SUV ended up in a shallow culvert by the side of a driveway on Burleson-Retta Road. Brian Jennings, 43 year old father of 3 and youth pastor at a Burleson church, had just left his son’s graduation party. Brian Jennings was taking 2 boys, aged 12 and 13, home when he pulled over to see if he could help change Breanna Mitchell’s tire.
The Boyles family heard the noise and father Eric Boyles, mother Hollie Boyles, 42, and their 21 year old daughter, Shelby, went out to help.
The group decided Breanna’s SUV would need to be towed and Breanna called her mother to come pick her up. Eric Boyles returned to his house but his wife and daughter and Pastor Brian stayed with Breanna. They were all 4 standing in the driveway. Breanna called her mother a second time. She said: “Momma, I love you. Please hurry.” Then the phone went dead.
The phone went dead because Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian were all dead.
They died because a drunk, spoiled, rich kid and his drunk friends went for a joyride.
Ethan Couch was just 16 years old at the time of the accident. His father, Fred Couch, owns Cleburne Sheet Metal, which has an estimated turnover of $15 million a year. Fred Couch had divorced his wife, Tonya, in 2007. Somewhere along the time, Fred Couch had bought a house, just a few hundred yards away from the Boyles home. According to witness testimony, young Ethan Couch lived there alone. Lived there and partied there. Alone.
One witness described a party at Ethan’s house just 3 days before the accident:
“He (Ethan Couch) had been boasting that he was a thief and on the way to his house he stopped off at a shop in Burleson and him and a friend stole some beers.”
“When we first arrived, the first thing he (Ethan Couch) did was jump in the pool, with his clothes on, rip his shirt off then start downing a big bottle of vodka. He was really knocking it back, he must have drunk about six or seven shots in one go.”
“There was no furniture (in Ethan Couch’s house) except for a big couch, a wide screen TV and his Xbox. It definitely looked like the kind of place a teenager would live in.”
The night of the accident, Ethan Couch and 7 friends had apparently been partying at Ethan Couch’s house. The friends were: Sergio Molina (15 years old), Soliman Mohmand (15 years old), Christian V. (15 years), Jacob G. (15), Starr T. (15), Garrett B. (16 years old), and Avery R. (19 years old). They decided to go for a ride in Ethan Couch’s truck, a red Ford F 350 which belonged to his father’s company but which his father had “entrusted” to Ethan Couch. Apparently, Ethan Couch and his friends needed more alcohol for their party because security camera footage shows “several of the trucks occupants shoplifting 2 cases of beer the same night” at a nearby Wal-Mart. Eventually, the headed back to Ethan Couch’s house.
A friend of one of the injured teens describes the trip back to Ethan Couch’s house:
“In court they said that when Ethan started driving, he was going really fast and all the others in the back were telling him to slow down. So to show off, he swerved into the wrong side of the road and started going even faster. A truck was coming in the other direction and at the very last minute he swerved back onto the right side, but he went to far and mounted the curb. That’s when he hit the other car.”
And that’s when Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian all died.
Ethan Couch was speeding at around 70 mph in a 40 mph zone when the accident occurred. Ethan Couch clipped the read of Breanna’s SUV and shoved it into the yard. Then he plowed into Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian and killed them. Their bodies were thrown 60 – 70 yards. Then Ethan Couch continued on and slammed into Brian Jenning’s parked Chevrolet Silverado and shoved it, and the 2 boys inside, across 2 lanes of traffic and into an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle carrying 2 young women. The Silverado ended up off the road. The Beetle swerved off the road but managed to get back on before coming to a stop. Ethan Couch’s truck then overturned. His friends in the bed of the truck were thrown out.
All told there were 16 people and 4 vehicles involved in the accident. 4 people were killed. Almost everyone else was injured, 2 seriously, 1 of whom was left paralyzed and brain damaged. But apparently Ethan Couch, the single cause of the accident, was unhurt. Ethan Couch was described as “uncooperative and combative with emergency services and walked away from the police saying ‘I’m outta here’.” Breanna Mitchell’s mother said: “Probably the hardest thing was the denial on his (Ethan Couch) part, refusing to accept that he did anything wrong. Telling paramedics that he didn’t have to answer his questions?”
When Ethan Couch was arrested 3 hours later, he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24, that is 3 times the legal limit for an adult. He also tested positive for valium.
Ethan Couch admitted to being the driver of his father’s company truck. He pled guilty to 4 counts of intoxication manslaughter (for the 4 dead people) and 2 counts of intoxication assault (for his 2 seriously injured friends). The Tarrant County District Attorney asked the judge to give Ethan Couch 20 years in prison. But Ethan Couch had a clever defense team. They argued that Ethan Couch suffered from “affluenza” and deserved “treatment” not prison time. Defense psychologist G. Dick Miller testified that Ethan Couch’s “family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.” Miller also said Ethan Couch had an emotional age of 12 and had been “left to raise himself in a consequence-free environment” and had “never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way.”
And Judge Jean Boyd apparently agreed even though “affluenza” is NOT recognized as an actual mental illness by the American Psychiatric association. Judge Boyd sentenced Ethan Couch to 10 years probation and a year in a special treatment facility suggested by the defense. Judge Boyd agreed to let the Couch family pay for the special $500,000 a year facility because “she is familiar with programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system and is aware that he (Ethan 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.” In other words, Ethan Couch’s wealth made him special and he deserved special treatment, not even treatment like any other teen might get, but special special treatment in a special facility chosen by and paid for by his special family.
As Cheryl might say: Bollocks!
Just look at the “facility” Ethan Couch was “sentenced” to. First off, Newport Academy is not even in Texas, it is in California. Next off, they only do 90 day treatments. They have never had a “patient” for a whole year. Newport Academy CEO Jamison Monroe, Jr. said “the opportunity to treat somebody for a year, though, is very appealing.” Apparently Ethan Couch is so very special that an entire special treatment center will change their entire way of working just for him. Also, in 2009, Treatment magazine named Newport Academy “the most beautiful treatment facility in the industry.”
How “beautiful” is Newport Academy? Well, they offer equine therapy, mixed martial arts lessons, massages, yoga, basketball, organic food, and cooking lessons. They have a swimming pool and a gym with state-of-the-art equipment. Newport Academy only ever has 12 “residents” at a time. 6 boys and 6 girls in separate facilities with 40 staff members to wait on them. There are just 2 beds in each room and the there is 6 acres of land to roam about on. Although the CEO does assure us that “We do have strict guidelines and rules. People can’t just do what they want to whenever they want to, so people have to follow our schedule and abide by our guidelines.”
Wooo! I wouldn’t want to think that special Ethan Couch was in any way uncomfortable while serving his “sentence.”
Just contrast the so specially beautiful Newport Academy with the ordinary, not so special juvenile prison in Texas. There is extreme over-crowding which means that several inmates are expected to share small cells. And there have been big budget cuts so whatever amenities exist are severely restricted. No swimming pools, horses, or state-of-the-art gyms there.
Ethan Couch kills 4 people and he goes to a fabulous spa that his family money will pay for while any other kid (meaning “poor” kid) gets stuffed in a cell with half a dozen others. Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian get coffins. Sergio gets paralyzed. And Ethan Couch gets daycare.
Some justice here.
Now to be fair, since the sentence came down in December, intrepid internet sleuths have uncovered all sorts of nasty facts about Ethan Couch’s so special parents. Fred and Tonya Couch both had a number of charges from alleged misdemeanors, most of them traffic charges, most of them either dismissed or paid with fines.
Fred Couch had 22 charges while Tonya Couch had 5, going back as far as 1989. Fred Couch, 48, had 18 traffic violations ranging from speeding to driving without a license. He was arrested twice for theft by worthless check. Yes, apparently the millionaire felt the need to steal $26 of gas and a $46 pair of shoes. Those charges were dismissed when he paid out several hundred dollars in “restitution.” Fred Couch was also arrested in 1996 for assaulting his wife, Tonya Couch. According to records, Fred Couch struck his wife on or about her face, causing her to fall, grabbed her on or about her neck and scratched her neck. But Tonya Couch submitted a “sworn affidavit of non-prosecution” which means the case was dismissed.
Tonya Couch has been charged with speeding and failure to adequately secure a young child in her care. She was also charged with reckless driving after she pulled up behind another motorist, then pulled alongside, and drove them off the road. Tonya Couch paid a $500 fine and did 6 months community supervision for that charge.
So obviously Ethan Couch may have money but his parents were no gems. They fought with each other, they drove recklessly and too fast, they were thieves, they threw money at their son and apparently left him to live by himself. And they never taught Ethan Couch that bad behavior has bad consequences. Ethan Couch is a poor, long-suffering victim of “affluenza.”
Bollocks! I say. Thank you, Cheryl, I really like this term.
And Bollocks! Says clinical psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg.
First off, according to Dr. Rosenberg, “affluenza” was just a term from a PBS special and its subsequent book and referred to the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome or increasing materialism. “Affluenza” is not, in any way, a diagnosis. So what if Ethan Couch’s parents never taught him that his inappropriate behavior would have negative consequences. “This doesn’t mean that he was incapable of learning this lesson in other areas of his life,” says Dr. Rosenberg. She goes on to say that “Even rats and other animals learn to make analogous types of discriminations based on context.” In other words, rats can learn that behavior has consequences so why couldn’t Ethan?
Dr. Rosenberg also says Bollocks! to the “sentence” the judge gave Ethan Couch. Dr. Rosenberg says:
“Let’s look at a mirror situation: poor teens whose parents didn’t appropriately discipline their children because the parents were working two jobs to put food on the table. These children may have gotten away with socially unacceptable or even unlawful behavior in the past and not suffered any negative consequences. But would their defense team successfully argue that these youths were less responsible than others? I don’t think so, even though the same issue is at the core: a lack of consequences from people in authority for socially undesirable behavior.”
“If Couch’s affluenza means that he didn’t receive appropriate consequences for his behavior in the past, what is the judge’s take-home message to him? The message is that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior. That wealth and privilege can buy someone’s way out of going to jail or to programs that are part of the public juvenile justice system. Judge Boyd’s cure for affluenza seems to be more of the same.”
In other words, Ethan Couch will never learn any good lessons from this entire unholy mess he caused because his money IS buying his way out of trouble. Ethan Couch drank himself stupid, drove drunk and too fast and recklessly. Ethan Couch killed 4 innocent people, ruined the lives of their families, injured nearly a dozen other people, 1 of whom will most likely never recover, ruined the lives of those families but Ethan Couch will never ever have to face any real responsibility because his wealth was the real cause of it all and that same wealth protects him from the consequences.
The only remotely good thing I see coming out of this stupidity is that the defense Ethan Couch’s lawyers put forth also puts the blame on his parents and helps the lawsuits the families of the dead and injured have filed. The parents and their company (because Ethan Couch drove the company truck) have basically already admitted guilt. The families should take the Couches for all they’ve got. The medical care for paralyzed friend Sergio Molina has already topped a million dollars. They are only asking for $20 million. They should ask for at least a hundred million, Sergio will probably need it.
Maybe if Ethan Couch’s parents have to pay all their so special wealth to the people and families that their son injured….well, maybe there won’t be any Couch money left to pay for special, fancy treatment centers. Ethan Couch was only sentenced for the 4 counts of intoxication manslaughter. The Tarrant Count DA is trying to get a different sentence for the 2 counts of intoxication assault. Maybe the so special Ethan Couch will one day end up in an ordinary, over crowded, uncomfortable jail cell just like all the un-special people.
Maybe there will be some kind of justice for the dead and injured.
We can only dream.