HOUSTON -- It is the Texas case with fiery elements: the fear of unequal justice, a rich kid who claimed his family’s wealth entitled him to special consideration, and the tragic death of four people in a drunk driving episode. All that and more was wrapped in the catchy word “affluenza,” a condition that many don’t think exists.
This month, Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth Juvenile Court sentenced a 16-year-old to 10 years' probation and ordered him to get therapy, for which his family will pay, to settle the drunk-driving case.
Now, those who feel betrayed by what they see as the law’s leniency are striking back.
On Thursday, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced that he's issuing a "charge" to the state Senate committee on criminal justice to study sentencing in such cases. Dewhurst said in a statement that drunk driving is a personal issue for him: His father was killed by a drunk driver when he was 3 years old.
"The decision to drive under the influence is the cause of entirely too much pain, injury and death in Texas," Dewhurst said. "As with any crime in Texas, we must ensure justice is served."
Prosecutors announced this week they would ask the judge to incarcerate the teen on lesser charges connected to his June 15 crash on a rural road in Texas.
Families of the four who died have announced they will pursue civil suits. And even the main candidates in the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial race have agreed that the decision was wrong and that the political system should consider laws to make sure it can’t happen again.
It is not unusual to believe that the rich can somehow get away with things while the poor go to prison. It was Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in literature, who famously and ironically noted, “The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
Almost a century later, in an August report by the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the advocacy group presented its case that being poor and a minority in the United States often leads to more time in prison and that the lack of wealth translates into lesser legal representation from overburdened public defender offices. “The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities,” it charged.
In the Texas case, the teen acknowledged that he was drunk when he drove his Ford F-350 with seven passengers and hit and killed four pedestrians.
Prosecutors had sought 20 years in prison. But the defense argued that therapy was more appropriate and put a psychologist on the stand who testified about affluenza, a condition, he said, that could afflict someone from a wealthy background from understanding that bad behavior has consequences.
The American Psychiatric Assn. does not recognize affluenza as a diagnosis, and many psychologists dispute that it exists as a mental health condition. Even psychologist G. Dick Miller, the expert witness for the defense who said the teen was suffering from affluenza, later told reporters that he regretted his choice of words.
“I wish I had not used that term,” he said on CNN this month. “Everyone seems to have hooked on to it.”
Beyond the name is the reality of a teen from a wealthy family being sentenced to a therapy center, costing a reported $450,000 a year, paid for by his parents.
“Everyone’s just assuming this affluenza defense worked,” said Robert Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Assn. “There might be a lot of reasons this judge decided the best thing for this 16-year-old is rehabilitation and therapy.”
Kepple said this was the first time he had heard of the affluenza defense. ”I don’t know that we’re going to see that defense very often,” he said. “It would be hard to envision juries being very impressed with that defense.”
The Tarrant County district attorney's office has since asked a juvenile court judge to incarcerate the 16-year-old on two counts of intoxication assault for which there has been no verdict.
“During his recent trial, the 16-year-old admitted his guilt in four cases of intoxication manslaughter and two cases of intoxication assault,” Dist. Atty. Joe Shannon said in a prepared statement. “There has been no verdict formally entered in the two intoxication assault cases. Every case deserves a verdict. The District Attorney’s Office is asking the court to incarcerate the teen on the two intoxication assault cases.”
Prosecutors said they couldn’t discuss more about the case because of limitations in law on how minors are identified. Although some media outlets have named the boy, Los Angeles Times policy is not to identify juveniles unless they are tried as adults.
“Money always seems to keep you out of trouble,” Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the accident, told reporters after the probation decision was announced. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”