Did US teen drunk-driving killer avoid prison because of family wealth?

Victims' families ask if wealth helped 16-year-old boy avoid 20-year prison sentence for killing four pedestrians after drink-driving

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 6:05am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 6:05am


Wealth has never had a stigma in the affluent suburbs of Fort Worth, a town on Forbes' list of America's most affluent neighbourhoods last year with a median income of US$250,000.

But in recent days, the implications of being rich have set off an emotional, angry debate, after a juvenile court judge sentenced a 16-year-old from a well-off family to 10 years' probation for killing four people in a drunk-driving crash.

The judge, Jean Boyd, last week declined to give the teenager, Ethan Couch, the punishment sought by Tarrant County prosecutors - 20 years in prison - and instead ordered him to be placed in a long-term treatment facility while on probation. The order came after a psychologist called by the defence argued that Couch should not be sent to prison because he suffered from affluenza - a term that dates at least to the 1980s to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege.

Prosecutors said they had never heard of a case in which the defence tried to blame a young man's conduct on the parents' wealth. If the boy continues to be cushioned by his family's wealth, another tragedy is inevitable, prosecutor Richard Alpert said.

The use of the term affluenza and the sentence have outraged the families of those Couch killed and injured, but whether the judge had in any way been influenced by the psychologist's testimony remained unclear.

Scott Brown, Couch's lawyer, said that the word affluenza was never at the heart of the case. His client had already pleaded guilty to the four deaths, and the word came up during three days of hearings regarding punishment. "I never used the word affluenza, and never would have used such a cute word in such a serious, tragic case," Brown said. "That's just been blown completely out of proportion."

Brown said Couch could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence.

But instead, the judge "fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years", he told the Star-Telegram.

The judge said the programmes available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the kind of intensive therapy the teen could receive at a rehabilitation centre in California that was suggested by his defence. The parents would pick up the tab for the centre - more than US$450,000 a year for treatment.

Couch's parents, Fred and Tonya, own homes in Fort Worth and a nearby suburb, where the crash occurred. Fred Couch runs a sheet-metal company.

On the night of June 15, Ethan Couch and several friends stole beer from a Wal-Mart and went to his parents' Burleson home to have a party. Later, he and seven others crowded into the pickup truck owned by his father's company to go to a store.

Prosecutors said Couch swerved off Burleson-Retta Road as he was driving about 110km/h, killing four pedestrians.

Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, said wealth helped the teenager avoid incarceration.

"Money always seems to keep you out of trouble," Boyles said. "Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different."

Additional reporting by Associated Press