The “Affluenza” Uproar in the Ethan Couch Case

Apr 28, 2014 - by Denise Noe - 0 Comments

Ethan Couch (Photo ABC)

“Affluenza” – a condition fostered by wealthy and permissive parents whose children grow up believing normal rules do not apply to them – was the buzz word at the sentencing of a Texas teenager whose drunk driving resulted in the deaths of four people and left another paralyzed for life.

by Denise Noe

The mood in a courtroom is inevitably tense right before sentencing. That is especially so when the crime has cost innocent people their lives and left survivors with severe injuries – and when there is a realistic possibility that the sentence could be either very severe or quite light.

All of the above were in play at the sentencing of 16-year-old Ethan Couch as he sat in a Tarrant County, Texas courtroom before State District Judge Jean Boyd on February 5, 2014.

Months earlier, Ethan had pled guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury. His drunk driving had caused a crash that killed four people and left one person permanently and severely handicapped.

Although minors charged with serious offenses are often tried as adults, Ethan was tried as a juvenile. Since he had pled guilty, the only question before the court was what his punishment would be. The maximum to which Ethan could be sentenced was 20 years imprisonment – although that sentence would have allowed the possibility of parole after two years in juvenile hall. The law also allowed for probation. Ethan had waived his right to have a jury decide his sentence so Judge Boyd would make that decision.

Prior to that day, Judge Boyd had heard defense attorneys Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn argue for leniency. They asserted that mitigating factors in Ethan’s background encouraged reckless and law-breaking behavior.

Psychologist G. Dick Miller testified that Ethan’s parents had allowed him “freedoms no young person should have.” Miller claimed Ethan possessed an “intellectual age” of 18 but an “emotional age” of 12. The psychologist said, “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you send him money.” Miller used the term “affluenza” to describe Ethan. Miller explained that “affluenza” was a condition fostered by wealthy and permissive parents who encourage their children to believe normal rules do not apply to the affluent.

Brown and Wynn requested probation. The attorneys acknowledged that Ethan had personality defects and would benefit from psychotherapy. They suggested a treatment facility in Newport Beach, California, the Newport Academy.

Prosecutors Richard Alpert and Riley Shaw pushed for the 20-year maximum, contending leniency would just reinforce the message Ethan had received from his parents that he does not have to obey the normal rules. Alpert argued that just as his lawyers blamed parental permissiveness for Ethan’s drunk driving, he would blame light sentence from Judge Boyd for a future offense. Alpert said, “There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here.”

Judge Boyd sentenced Ethan to 10 years probation. She also ordered that he be taken to the Newport Academy in California to receive psychotherapy as a live-in patient. She ruled that he must spend at least two years at the Newport Academy. The judge indicated that she felt it was absolutely vital that Ethan receive appropriate psychotherapy. Addressing the prosecution assertion that counseling is available in prison, the judge said she feared he would not receive it there.

Writing for the Star-Telegram, Mitch Mitchell reported, “[Judge] Boyd said that she is familiar with programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system and is aware that he 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. Boyd said she had sentenced other teens to state programs but they never actually got into those programs.”

Although the sentence indicated Judge Boyd found the defense convincing, she made a point of telling Ethan that he, not his parents, was responsible for his crimes. She also informed him that if he violated probation conditions, the probation could be revoked and he might serve as long as 10 years in prison. Among other strictures, the probation conditions forbid Ethan from driving. They also forbid him from drinking alcohol.

Judge Boyd had to realize that the loved ones of those killed and badly injured were sorely disappointed by the sentence. She probably saw dismay on their faces. Speaking to them directly, she said nothing she might do could ease their pain.

Indeed, relatives of the victims were terribly upset by the leniency.

Alex Lemus is the elder brother of Sergio Molina, who was rendered permanently paralyzed and brain-damaged by the crash. Lemus said he was “disappointed, so outrageously angry that I couldn’t say anything…That kid killed four people and crippled my little brother and doesn’t even have to serve one year?”

Eric Boyles, who lost his wife, Hollie Boyles, 52, and a daughter, 21-year-old Shelby, in the accident, commented, “Money always seems to keep [Ethan] out of trouble. Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.” The grieving husband and father also remarked, “Nowhere in this process did Ethan ever say to the families, to the court, ‘I’m so sorry for what happened.’ Nowhere did Ethan express any remorse or anything.”

Coddling A Criminal Because Previously Coddled?

The sentence stirred up a storm of controversy, with many accusing the judge of supporting a double standard that bestowed more privilege on those already privileged. Psychologist Gary Buffone pointed out that “affluenza” is a term popularized by The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, a bookby Jessie H. O’Neill and is not a diagnosis officially recognized by mental health community professionals.

Buffone said “affluenza” is sometimes cited when children of wealthy parents misbehave but he contends, “The simple term would be ‘spoiled brat.’” Buffone argued that the sentence is a continuation of the very pattern of coddling that the defense claimed led Ethan to act irresponsibly: “Not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”

Drexel University law professor Daniel Filler asserted, “The real truth is that our criminal justice system is suffering from ‘affluenza’ because affluent people can afford better attorneys and get better outcomes.”

Psychologist Suniya Luthar decried what she called “a double standard for the rich and poor.”

Ethan’s lawyer Scott Brown commented, “I never used the word ‘affluenza’ and never would have used such a cute word in such a serious tragic case. That’s just been blown completely out of proportion.”

In post-sentencing interviews, psychologist Miller said he regretted calling Ethan’s problem “affluenza.” Miller explained, “I wish I hadn’t used that term. Everyone seems to have hooked into it.” He defended the leniency, saying, “I don’t believe going to the penitentiary was best for him or the state of Texas and [the judge] concurred.”

Was Ethan An Accident Waiting To Happen?

At the time of the crash, Ethan resided in a Burleson, Texas mansion his parents had provided for him – to live in by himself. In Mail Online Will Payne and Daniel Bates report that Ethan “regularly boasted to friends that he lived in his own mansion, completely unsupervised by his parents.” Teenager Anthony Lamanna described Ethan’s personal mansion: “There was no furniture except for a big couch, a widescreen TV, and his X Box. It definitely looked like the kind of place a teenager would live in.”

Ethan enjoyed throwing parties at his mansion. Alcohol freely flowed at those parties as Ethan and other adolescents merrily pounded back the booze that was legally forbidden to them as minors.

Ethan’s fondness for drinking landed him in legal trouble in February 2013. In WFAA.com, Teresa Woodard reports, “Police in the town of Lakeside, northwest of Fort Worth, found Ethan Couch with a 12-ounce can of beer and a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka. Just before 1 a.m. February 19, [2013], a Lakeside officer gave Couch two citations – one for being a minor in possession of alcohol, the other for consuming alcohol as a minor.” He pled no contest to both charges in March 2013. His mother paid $423 in court costs and Ethan was sentenced to probation.

Apparently Ethan was impervious to the lessons of the alcohol-awareness class as he continued merrily hosting parties at which he and other teenagers drank heavily. Lamanna attended such a get-together on June 12, 2013. Payne and Bates report that Lamanna remembered that Ethan “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.”

In his failure to learn from experience, Ethan followed in the wayward footsteps of his parents.

The Sins of the Parents

Fred Couch and Tonya Couch, who divorced in 2007, are Ethan’s parents. Fred owns Cleburne Metal Works, a sheet metal manufacturing company. Both parents have arrest records for driving violations and other offenses; neither has been incarcerated. Fred’s driving offenses include going 95 m.p.h. in a 60 m.p.h. zone and driving without a license. He has paid small fines for traffic violations several times.
In 1996, while the Couches were still married, police arrested Couch for assaulting his wife. According to police records, Couch hit her “on or about the face with his hands causing Tonya to fall” and grabbed her “on or about the neck with his hands, scratching her neck.” Mrs. Couch filed an affidavit of non-prosecution; the charge was dismissed.

In 2003, Tonya Couch was charged with misdemeanor reckless driving. Police alleged that she “intentionally and knowingly drove a motor vehicle in a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Payne and Bates report, “Court records say she pulled up behind a fellow motorist” and then pulled alongside the vehicle, forcing the driver onto the road’s shoulder. She was sentenced to pay a $500 fine and a six-month community supervision order was placed on her.

The Catastrophic Crash – and Lives Crushed

Ethan's Truck (Photo NBC 5 News)

On the evening of June 15, 2013, Ethan and some friends replayed the petty theft scene Anthony Lamanna described as occurring three evenings before. Ethan and other teenagers were partying at his mansion when he and some pals left to go to a Wal-Mart. Possibly fancying themselves daring outlaws, the callow youths stole two cases of beer. After stealing the booze they returned to Ethan’s home for more partying.

At some point, a girl at the party said she wanted a feminine hygiene product. (News articles are not more graphic but it seems logical to surmise that the teen girl wanted something to ensure cleanliness during her menstrual period.)

Ethan and seven other partiers piled into a red Ford pickup truck that was the property of Fred Couch’s company; six squeezed into the cab and two had to ride in the bed of the truck.

At about the same time during that evening Ethan and his guests headed for his pickup, Breanna Mitchell was driving her 2000 Mercury Mountaineer on Burleson-Retta Rd. Mitchell’s SUV suddenly had a blow out. The flat tire led her to maneuver the disabled vehicle onto the shoulder of the road. It is likely Mitchell was not only upset due to the inconvenience but scared since her car had broken down after dark. The distressed woman knocked on the front door of a nearby house.

Although Hollie Boyles, 52, and daughter Shelby Boyles were strangers to Mitchell, they sympathized with her plight. Hollie and Shelby went with Mitchell to her broken down car.

Youth pastor Brian Jennings, 43, was driving home from his son’s graduation party when he noticed the trio gathered around the SUV. Teenagers Lucas McConnell and Isaiah McLaughlin were in the car with Jennings. He parked his Chevrolet Silverado on the north side shoulder. McConnell and McLaughlin stayed in the Silverado while Jennings went to offer assistance.

Impaired by booze, Ethan ignored the 40 m.p.h. posts. His foot went heavy on the accelerator and he sped along at almost 70 m.p.h. Suddenly the drunk teenager lost control of his speeding vehicle. His wildly careening truck clipped Breanna Mitchell’s car before slamming straight into Mitchell, Hollie and Shelby Boyles, and Jennings. The impact flung Mitchell and the three Good Samaritans about 60 yards into the air. Not surprisingly, all four were killed.

Then Ethan’s out-of-control truck plowed straight into Jennings’ car causing the Silverado to slam into a moving car occupied by two people. The teenagers in the parked vehicle and the two in the car into which it slammed survived without severe injuries.
The two teenagers riding in the bed of the truck Ethan drove were hurled out of the vehicle. One of them, Sergio Molina, 15, was left brain damaged and paralyzed. In The New York Times, Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz report that Sergio is in a “minimally responsive state” and expected to remain so for life. The other person tossed from the bed, Solimon Mohmand, was also severely injured, with internal injuries and several broken bones.

Others in the truck, including Ethan, sustained minor injuries.

Although it is illegal in Texas for minors to drive with any alcohol in their systems, tests showed that Ethan’s blood alcohol level was 0.24 – three times the legal limit for adults.
Victims File Multiple Lawsuits

Months before the sentencing, victims’ families began filing lawsuits. Those who have filed lawsuits include Eric Boyles, Shauna Jennings (Brian Jennings’ widow), and Marla Mitchell (Breanna’s mother).
The families of three injured teenaged passengers in Ethan’s car are also suing. Kevin and Alesia McConnell, parents of Lucas McConnell and Timothy and Priscilla McLaughline, parents of Isaiah McLaughlin, are suing.

Maria Lemus and Sergio Molina, parents of the most severely injured survivor who bears the same name as his father, Sergio Molina, are asking for $20 million in their lawsuit. In their suit, they point out that Sergio requires round-the-clock care and that Maria quit her job to help care for him after he was released from the hospital.

All six lawsuits name Ethan, Fred, and Cleburne Metal Works as defendants (the business is being sued because the pickup Ethan drove was company property); four of the suits also name Tonya, Ethan’s mother.  

On January 6, 2014, District Judge R. H. Wallace consolidated five of the lawsuits. Couch family attorney Randy Nelson commented, “It makes sense to have these cases in one court. If there are multiple cases involving the same incident, it is common to combine them in court for judicial economy.” District Judge Bill Harris told reporters that combining the suits should save both time and court costs.

Therapy At Newport Academy

According to David McCormack in Mail Online, Newport Academy resembles a “luxury resort.” McCormack reports, “Newport specializes in equine-assisted psychotherapy where patients get to ride horses.” They may also take cooking lessons, martial arts lessons, make use of the swimming pool, gym, and basketball court, and receive massages. McCormack notes, “The apparently idyllic conditions at Newport are a world away from those at juvenile prison in Texas, where extreme overcrowding means several inmates are expected to share a cell.”

Newport Academy CEO Jamison Monroe Jr. makes it clear that, regardless of its resemblance to a resort, Newport is a treatment center. “We do have strict guidelines and rules. People can’t just do what they want to whenever they want to. People have to follow our schedule and abide by our guidelines.” He added that if Ethan fails to follow Newport guidelines, that failure will be reported to the court.

Equine therapy does not just mean riding horses. It means that patients at Newport are assigned a horse for which the patient is responsible. Taking responsibility for a horse may help develop the sense of responsibility that is so sadly lacking in delinquent minors like Ethan.

It seems likely that the role of “affluenza” in Judge Boyd’s decision was grossly over-estimated. In The New York Times, Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz report, “Criminal defense lawyers said it was not uncommon for minors involved in serious drunken-driving cases and other crimes to receive probation instead of prison time.” The journalists elaborated, “Other experts said it was part of a growing trend of giving a young person a second chance through rehabilitation” instead of trying them as adults.

Liz Ryan, president of the Campaign for Youth Justice, an organization that advocates emphasizing rehabilitation for juvenile offenders, supports the sentence. She said adolescents are especially “prone to impulsive behavior” but are also especially “capable of change.”

Alex Lemus is right to complain, “If he were poor like us, he would’ve gotten 10 years, I bet.”

Luthar asked, “What is the likelihood [that] 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. . . what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?”

Judge Boyd did not excuse Ethan. She decided that two years of therapy and eight more years of probation, rather than two years in juvenile hall, would be the best place for him. Is this decision reasonable? McCormack observes, “The apparently idyllic conditions at Newport are a world away from those at juvenile prison in Texas, where extreme overcrowding means several inmates are expected to share a cell and amenities are severely restricted due to budget cuts. As a result, an atmosphere of drugs and violence pervades.”

Liz Ryan noted that adolescents are especially “prone to impulsive behavior” – and also especially “capable of change.” That they are especially “capable of change” should mean that there should be a special emphasis on rehabilitation with them. Therapy would be far more likely to be successful with an adolescent – someone whose brain is still developing – than with an adult. Despite this, an impoverished juvenile who drove drunk or otherwise behaved recklessly with tragic results, would be likely to be placed in an overcrowded system in which “an atmosphere of drugs and violence pervades.” Thus, that adolescent would reach adulthood with criminal tendencies reinforced and exacerbated. Any chance of positive change would be lost. A delinquent juvenile shoved into this overcrowded and brutal system will invariably mature into an even more callous and dangerous adult.

Perhaps the scandal in this case is not that Ethan Couch will receive psychotherapy in a healthy environment but that his impoverished counterpart would not.

 

Bibliography

Alcindor, Yamiche. “What’s the future for ‘affluenza’ defenses?” USA Today. Dec. 14, 2013.

Christian, Carol. “Victims’ families in Texas ‘affluenza’ case file multi-million dollar lawsuits.” Chron. Dec. 18, 2013.

“Civil suits against Couch family combined.” Cleburne Times-Review. Jan. 10, 2014.

“Couch, parents named in 6th civil lawsuit.” Cleburne Times-Review. Jan. 3, 2014.

Fernandez, Manny; Schwartz, John. “Teenager’s Sentence in Fatal Drunken-Driving Case Stirs ‘Affluenza’ Debate.” The New York Times. Dec. 13, 2013.

Harris, Byron. “DA seeks jail time for Ethan Couch; more details arise in teen’s background.” WFAA.com. Dec. 17, 2013

McCormack, David. “Horseback riding, massages and cooking lessons: Inside the luxury $450k per year rehab center that ‘affluenza’ teen will attend as punishment for killing four in DUI.” Mail Online. Dec. 17, 2013.

Mitchell, Mitch. “Teen sentenced to 10 years probation, rehab in 4 deaths.” Star-Telegram. Dec. 13, 2013.

Patinkin, Felicia. “’Affluenza’ DUI Case: Prosecutors Try Again to Put Teen Behind Bars.” ABC News. Dec. 18, 2013.

Payne, Will; Bates, Daniel. “EXCLUSIVE – Sins of the ‘affluenza’ boy’s parents: Millionaire father and mother of teen let off despite killing four in DUI crash have been accused of more than TWENTY crimes and traffic violations.” Mail Online. Dec. 16, 2013.

Plushnick-Masti, Ramit. “’Affluenza’ isn’t a recognized diagnosis, experts say after ‘brat’ spared from jail in drunk driving case.” Associated Press. Dec. 12, 2013.

Szoldra, Paul. “Psychologist For Teen Drunk Driver Who Killed 4 And Got No Jail Time Defends ‘Affluenza’ Diagnosis.” Business Insider. Dec. 13, 2013.

“Texas judge combines 5 of 6 lawsuits against Ethan Couch.” United Press International. Jan. 9, 2014.

Woodward, Teresa. “Teen driver involved in deadly crash had prior alcohol citations.” WFAA.com. June 21, 2013.

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