A defense psychologist called it “affluenza,” a syndrome that keeps someone from a wealthy background from learning that bad behavior has consequences. That explanation helped a North Texas teenager get a sentence of probation after he drove while drunk and killed four pedestrians.
The 16-year-old was sentenced Tuesday in a Fort Worth juvenile court to 10 years of probation after he confessed to intoxication manslaughter in the June 15 crash on a rural road.
According to officials, the teenager and some friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to testimony during the trial. The pickup fatally struck four pedestrians: Brian Jennings, 43; Breanna Mitchell, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21; and her mother Hollie Boyles, 52.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 20 years in state custody for the boy, but his attorneys successfully argued to state District Judge Jean Boyd that the teenager needed rehabilitation not prison, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Although some media outlets are identifying the teen by name, Los Angeles Times policy is not to identify juveniles accused of crimes unless they are tried as adults.
Boyd noted the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the kind of intensive treatment the teenager could received at a California rehabilitation center suggested by his defense attorneys. The parents would pick up the center's cost of more than $450,000 a year for treatment, it was reported.
The sentence outraged the prosecutor and the families of the victims who said the family’s wealth had allowed him to treated better by the legal system.
“Money always seems to keep you out of trouble,” Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, told reporters. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”
Shaunna Jennings said her family had forgiven the teenager but believed a sterner punishment was needed.
“You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this,” she said. “My fear is that it will get you out of this.”
“There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here,” prosecutor Richard Alpert told reporters.
A psychologist testified for the defense that the teen is a product of something he called “affluenza” and doesn't link bad behavior with consequences because his parents taught him that wealth buys privilege, the psychologist said in court, according to media reports.
That psychologist cited one instance when the boy, then 15, was caught in a parked pickup with a naked 14-year-old girl who was passed out. He was never punished, the psychologist said, noting to the court that the teenager was allowed to drink at a very young age, and even began driving at 13.
Scott Brown, the boy's lead defense attorney, said he could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence sought by prosecutors. 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.
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