It’s so difficult to avoid absurdity these days, and more difficult yet to witness how outlandish defenses, ridiculous justifications and bizarre explanations work in favor of those who need the book thrown at them. Those who, if our justice system weren’t so broken, deserve to serve time for the crime.
Yes, I’m referring to Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old Texan who got away with murder. Anyone else would be locked up in juvie. Not Couch. He has wealthy parents who hired top-dollar attorneys and a defense-witness psychologist to help their spoiled brat hide behind junk science.
This is the kind of case that makes cynics of the rest of us. It has enraged so many people that Couch has become the poster child of how privilege has tainted our courts and our values. The teenager, who reportedly said "I’m outta here" at the gruesome crime scene, has proven yet again that accountability can vary in reverse proportion to a defendant’s wealth and ability to game the system.
In June, an impaired Couch was driving his pickup truck 70 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour zone when he slammed into four people on the side of the road, killing all of them. These unlucky souls included a young woman whose car had broken down and three Good Samaritans, including a mother and a daughter, who had stopped to help. Two friends of Couch, riding in the bed of his truck, were seriously injured.
Later, tests would reveal Couch had prescription Valium in his system and a blood-alcohol level three times the legal adult limit.
Couch recently pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury — crimes that, on their face, practically shout for prison time. But in court, his defense called on Dr. Gary Miller — where did they find this guy? — who blamed everything on the teen’s divorced parents. He argued that Couch was a victim of his privileged upbringing and, because he had never been punished for his actions, didn’t associate actions with consequences.
“The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone,” the Fort Worth Star Telegram quoted Miller as saying. “If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”
In other words, the poor little rich boy was afflicted with “affluenza.”
Prosecutors asked for 20 years in juvenile hall, with the possibility of parole in two years, but the state district judge handed down a sweetheart sentence instead, giving Couch 10 years probation and packing him off to a private rehab facility that costs $450,000 a year. His father agreed to foot the bill, as he well should.
I’d like to think the judge had her reasons for not sending Couch to juvenile hall. I’d also like to think Couch will be haunted for the rest of his life by the consequences of his heedless actions. My gut and my brain, however, tell me otherwise. Money too often eases the pang of guilt and greases the gears of justice. If Couch were poor, if he were a minority, if he were an average 16-year-old, he wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.
If there’s any comfort to be offered to the injured and the grieving families of the dead, let it be this: In the end, Couch will have to answer to a higher authority, one that will not be persuaded by an “affluenza” defense.