Ethan Couch

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Ethan Couch (born April 11, 1997) is an American who was sentenced to 10 years probation after being convicted of killing four pedestrians and seriously injuring two others while driving drunk near Fort Worth, Texas. On June 15, 2013, he crashed a pickup truck into pedestrians. He was 16 at the time. In December 2013, he was sentenced to therapy at a long-term, in-patient facility,[1] after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from so-called affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison.[2] His sentence set off what the New York Times called "an emotional, angry debate that has stretched far beyond the North Texas suburbs".[3]

Family and early incidents[edit]

Ethan's father, Fred Crouch, is the owner of Cleburne Metal Works, which has approximately 30 employees and a yearly turnover estimated at $15 million.[4] His mother is Tonya Couch. They were divorced in 2007. Ethan's parents both have had incidents with the law, publicized in the media following their son's conviction, but have never served any time in prison.[4] Ethan's father has been charged with criminal mischief, theft by check and assault, but these charges were dismissed. Ethan's mother was sentenced to a $500 fine and a six-month community supervision order[4] for reckless driving.[5]

In February 2013, Ethan was cited for "minor in consumption of alcohol" and "minor in possession of alcohol". He pled no contest and was sentenced to probation, a compulsory alcohol awareness class, and 12 hours of community service.[6]

Crash, trial and sentence[edit]

On June 15, 2013, according to authorities and trial testimony, Couch was witnessed on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Walmart store, driving with seven passengers in his father's Ford F-350 pickup truck, speeding (70 MPH in a designated 40 MPH zone), and had a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit for adult drivers in Texas.[3] Couch also tested positive for Valium.[1]

Approximately an hour after the beer theft, Couch was driving his father's truck at 70 MPH on a dark, rural road where motorist Breanna Mitchell's sport utility vehicle had stalled. Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby, who lived nearby, had come out to help her, as had passing youth minister Brian Jennings. Couch's truck swerved off the road and into Mitchell's car, then plowed into Jennings' parked car, which in turn hit an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle. The truck then flipped over and hit a tree. Mitchell, Jennings, and both Hollie and Shelby Boyles were killed, while Couch and his seven teen passengers (none wearing seat belts) survived, as did the two children in Jennings' car and the two people in the Volkswagen.[7]

G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility near Newport Beach, California that the teen was expected to attend would cost his family approximately $500,000 annually.[8][9] The facility offers a 90-day treatment program that includes horse riding, mixed martial arts, massage and cookery, a swimming pool, basketball and six acres of land.[10] At least one relative of the crash victims has complained of the lightness of Couch's sentence[11] and that Couch had expressed no remorse.[12]

At a court hearing closed to the public Couch was ordered to an unspecified lock down rehabilitation facility where his parents will pay, the time Couch will have to stay there was also unspecified. Couch was ordered to avoid using drugs or alcohol or driving. Victims families are not satisfied.[13]

Reaction[edit]

Following the probation sentence, the Tarrant County District Attorney's office has asked a juvenile judge to incarcerate Couch, on two counts of intoxication assault, saying there had been no verdict formally entered for those charges and "every case deserves a verdict."[14]

One psychologist who disagreed with Couch's sentence—Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, who specializes in "the costs of affluence in suburban communities"—maintains that research shows feelings of entitlement among affluent youth is a social problem, and that "we are setting a double standard for the rich and poor." Luthar asked:

"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 because of how he was raised?"[15]

Writing in The Guardian, Texas student Jessica Luther points out that Couch's family's ability to pay for private therapy, i.e. their wealth, was intrinsic to the judge's reasoning for giving Couch a light sentence. An offender without their means would end up in the overcrowded, publicly supported Texas juvenile justice system where (the judge noted) 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".[16]

Another psychologist — Robin S. Rosenberg — has argued Miller's defense makes no sense because Couch could have learned that bad behavior has consequences in other areas of his life, and that a sentence to a luxurious rehabilitation home reinforces the message "that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior".[17]

Critics have also complained that the presiding judge—state District Judge Jean Boyd—gave a much harsher sentence to another 16-year-old intoxicated driver 10 years earlier. In February 2004, Boyd sentenced Eric Bradlee Miller to 20 years, telling him, “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.”[18] Miller had killed one victim, not four, and had a much lower blood alcohol level (0.11 compared to Couch's 0.24) but was from a much poorer family.[18][19]

However, according to the New York Times, it is unclear if Couch's family's wealth played a part in his sentence. "[I]t is not uncommon for minors involved in serious drunken-driving cases and other crimes to receive probation instead of prison time", and the sentence may be part of "a growing trend of giving a young person a second chance through rehabilitation instead of trying him as an adult".[3] Judge Boyd also has a prior history of attempting to place youths in rehabilitation rather than jail.[20]

The leading Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2014 Texas gubernatorial election, respectively Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, commented on the sentence. Davis referred to it as a "disgrace" and Abbott, Texas's attorney general, stated that his office was looking to appeal the case.[21]

At a February 5, 2014 hearing, Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, said "Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different."[22]

Lawsuits[edit]

As of December 18, five civil lawsuits have been filed by families of the victims—Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52—against Couch, his family, and Cleburne Metal Works (doing business as Cleburne Sheet Metal).[23] One lawsuit was filed by Maria Lemus and Sergio Molina on behalf of their son Sergio E. Molina, who was riding in the bed of Couch's truck and suffered a traumatic brain injury and remains hospitalized. According to the suit petition, Molina's medical expenses exceeded an estimated $600,000 at the time and could top $10 million if he needs round-the-clock care.[23]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Mitchell, Mitch. "Teen sentenced to 10 years probation, rehab in 4 deaths". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved 15 December 2013. 
  2. ^ "What's the future for 'affluenza' defenses?". USA Today. 14 December 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c FERNANDEZ, MANNY; SCHWARTZ, JOHN (December 13, 2013). "Teenager's Sentence in Fatal Drunken-Driving Case Stirs 'Affluenza' Debate". New York Times. Retrieved 15 December 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c Payne, Will (16 December 2013). "EXCLUSIVE - Sins of the 'affluenza' boy's parents]". Daily Mail. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Harris, Byron (17 December 2013). "DA seeks jail time for Ethan Couch; more details arise in teen's background". Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  6. ^ Woodward, Teresa (21 June 2013). "Teen driver involved in deadly crash had prior alcohol citations". WFAA. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Hallman, Tristan. "Sheriff: Speed and alcohol played roles in chaotic Tarrant County wreck that killed four". The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Plushnick-Masti, Ramit. "Affluenza’ isn’t a recognized diagnosis, experts say after ‘brat’ spared from jail in drunk driving case". National Post. Associated Press. Retrieved 12 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Muskal, Michael. "Texas teen's probation for killing 4 while driving drunk stirs anger". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12 December 2013. 
  10. ^ Inside the luxury $450k per year rehab center that 'affluenza' teen will attend as punishment for killing four in DUI
  11. ^ Walker, Tim (13 December 2013). "Ethan Couch: Texas quadruple murderer – or a victim of ‘affluenza’?". The Independent (London). Retrieved 15 December 2013. "Eric Boyles, who lost his wife Hollie and daughter Shelby in the accident, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Money always seems to keep [Couch] out of trouble." Of the probation sentence, Mr Boyles added: "Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different."" 
  12. ^ PATINKIN, FELICIA. "U.S. 'Affluenza' DUI Case: Prosecutors Try Again to Put Teen Behind Bars". ABC News. Retrieved 19 December 2013. "'Nowhere in this process did Ethan ever say to the families, to the court, "I'm so sorry for what happened," said [Eric] Boyles. "Nowhere did Ethan express any remorse or anything.'" 
  13. ^ Judge orders Texas teen Ethan Couch to rehab for driving drunk, killing 4
  14. ^ PATINKIN, FELICIA. "U.S. 'Affluenza' DUI Case: Prosecutors Try Again to Put Teen Behind Bars". 18 December 2013. ABC News. Retrieved 19 December 2013. "The Tarrant County District Attorney's office has asked a juvenile judge to incarcerate Ethan Couch, 16, on two counts of intoxication assault for which there has been no verdict. 'The 16-year-old admitted his guilt in four cases of intoxication manslaughter and two cases of intoxication assault. There has been no verdict formally entered. Every case deserves a verdict,' District Attorney Joe Shannon said in a statement." 
  15. ^ PLUSHNICK-MASTI, RAMIT. "'Affluenza' Defense Draws Criticism In Ethan Couch Sentence For Fatal DWI Wreck". 12/12/13. AP. Retrieved 15 December 2013. "her research at Columbia University in New York has shown that 20 percent of upper middle-class adolescents believe their parents would help them get out of a sticky situation at school, such as being caught for the third time on campus with a bottle of vodka." 
  16. ^ Luther, Jessica (15 December 2013). "Affluenza: the latest excuse for the wealthy to do whatever they want". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  17. ^ Rosenberg, Robin S. (17 December 2013). "There’s No Defense for Affluenza". Slate. Retrieved 18 December 2013. 
  18. ^ a b Mitchell, Mitch (December 21, 2013). "Fatal crash in 2004 drew different sentence from Tarrant judge". Star Telegram. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  19. ^ "Sentences vary for drunken teens in fatal wrecks". December 22, 2013. ABC WFAA. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  20. ^ "Rich Teen’s Lenient Sentence Raises Questions About How to Handle Convicted Juveniles". The Root. 13 December 2013. Retrieved 9 February 2014. 
  21. ^ "Ethan Couch sentence becomes issue in governor's race". WFAA. 15 December 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  22. ^ Neil, Martha (6 February 2014). "‘Affluenza’ teen on probation for fatal crash is sent to pricey rehab". American Bar Association. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  23. ^ a b Christian, Carol (18 December 2013). "Victims' families in Texas 'affluenza' case file multi-million dollar lawsuits". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 19 December 2013.