Anger over probation for rich teen in drunk driving crash that killed 4
HOUSTON — A Texas teen may have avoided being sent to prison for a drunk driving crash that killed four people because he suffered from having too much money.
Last week, a Fort Worth judge sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years of supervision after Ethan killed four people while he was driving drunk. Ethan must get treatment for alcoholism while under supervision. He must also stay out of trouble for 10 years.
He could have gone to prison for 20 years because of what he did. Instead, he will not go to jail at all.
At Ethan's trial, a psychologist said that he was so spoiled and focused on material things that he couldn't control his behavior. He also couldn't understand how his actions affected others. In other words, he suffered from "affluenza."
Term Called Junk Science
"Affluenza" puts together the words "affluent," meaning wealthy, and "influenza," or the flu. It was made popular in a book in the late 1990s. The term was usually used to describe children from rich families. These children could do bad things like drugs or drinking, but would use having too much money as an excuse. "Affluenza" is not a real illness.
Dr. Gary Buffone, a psychologist from Florida who advises wealthy families, said the term was never meant to be used in a courtroom.
The families of victims and many experts are very angry. They say that "affluenza" is junk science. The judge's decision makes people think that Ethan got a light sentence because his family is rich, they say.
"The simple term would be spoiled brat," Buffone said.
What the judge has done, Buffone said, is slap the teen on the wrist for what is clearly a very serious offense. The outcome of the trial is "horrifying," he said.
The psychologist hired by Ethan's family said at his trial that his parents argued a lot. His parents eventually divorced, a newspaper reported.
But the lawyer who was fighting to put Ethan in jail argued otherwise. He said in court that if the boy continues to be protected by his family's money, another sad event is sure to happen.
Psychologist: Case Sends Dangerous Message
District Judge Jean Boyd has not publicly explained the reason behind the decision not to send Ethan to jail. According to the local newspaper, the judge said Ethan's parents could afford to pay for better therapy for him than Ethan would get in jail. His parents would pay for the $450,000-per-year cost of sending him to a treatment center in California.
Dr. Suniya Luthar is a psychologist at Columbia University in New York. She said her research has shown that nearly a fourth of upper middle-class teens believe their parents would help them get out of a sticky situation at school. Ethan's court case reinforces that belief, she said. Luthar said there is one type of justice for the rich and another for the poor.
We are treating the rich differently from how we treat the poor, she added. The case sends the message that "families that have money, you can drink and drive. This is a very, very dangerous thing we're telling our children."
Police said Ethan and his friends were seen on video stealing two cases of beer from a store. At the time of the crash, he was speeding and was very drunk, according to trial testimony. His truck slammed into the four pedestrians and killed them. They were Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.
Scott Brown, Ethan's main lawyer, said the teenager could have been freed after two years if he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Instead, the judge gave him a punishment that could keep him being under heavy supervision for the next 10 years, he said.