On June 15, an intoxicated drive around town by several North Texas teens ended with four dead and at least two others critically injured. The driver, 16-year-old Ethan Couch, stole beer from a Wal-Mart before speeding his pick-up truck with seven passengers down a dark rural road, and ramming into four pedestrians attending to a broken down car.
Prosecutors sought the maximum 20-year sentence for Couch. But after Couch pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter, he was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time. Instead, he will spend time in a long-term, inpatient rehabilitation center in Southern California, after his father agreed to pay the $450,000-per-year bill. If he violates probation, he could spend ten years in jail. But the sentence is nonetheless a deviation from other recent punishments in Texas for similar crimes, all of which had a smaller death toll.
In the course of Couch’s joy ride, he not only hit the four pedestrians including a youth minister; he also hit another parked car that was then pushed into another moving vehicle. At least two passengers were thrown from his pick-up truck and critically injured; one can’t move or talk. Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said it was “probably the most difficult accident scene we’ve ever had to work.” Couch’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit even for an adult, with both alcohol and Valium in his system.
But Couch’s behavior was explained by psychologist Gary Miller’s testimony as a consequence of an affliction known as “affluenza,” suffered by very wealthy individuals who do not take responsibility for their own actions.
Miller said Couch has a mantra of, “if it feels good, do it,” stemming from a childhood without parental role models or rules. “He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” Miller said. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”
He said his divorced parents had a contentious relationship. His father “does not have relationships, he takes hostages,” and his mother used her son as a tool to manipulate the father, according to the Forth Worth Star-Telegram.
In agreeing to his father’s proposal, District Judge Jean Boyd reasoned that the California facility would provide better treatment than juvenile treatment centers in Texas. Boyd told Couch during sentencing that it was he, and not his parents, who was responsible for this accident, and told the victims there was nothing she could do to lessen their pain.
But the victims’ families thought otherwise. Eric Boyle, whose wife and daughter were killed, said, “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.” Shaunna Jennings, who lost her husband, said, “You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this. My fear is that it will get you out of this.”
Intoxication manslaughter is a second-degree felony in Texas, which carries a penalty of no less than 2 years and no more than 20 years in prison. In sentencing, a judge will consider the fact that the defendant is a juvenile, with “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”
Whether or not Couch’s punishment is appropriate under this guidance, the sentence is significantly laxer than others have received in Texas, for similar crimes, or by the same judge.
In July, a 19-year-old who pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter in the same county was sentenced to eight years in prison. Cristian Leos’ collision resulted in the death of one person, his cousin and fellow passenger Bonifacio Leos-Castanon. Leos will have to serve six years of his sentence before he is eligible for parole, according to the Star-Telegram.
Other juveniles sentenced by the same judge who presided over Couch’s case, Jean Boyd, saw sentences of ten years for a single punch that killed a stranger and robberies at a Halloween party that led to one injury. And around the state, others sentenced for intoxicated manslaughter have seen sentences of 15 years and five years in prison.
Not everyone has fared as poorly. In 2007, a judge’s daughter convicted of intoxicated manslaughter in Harris County was given just four months in jail and eight months of probation after her family pleaded for leniency.