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'Affluenza,' a get-out-of-jail-free card that only the rich can draw

It’s no secret that in America, the wealthy have a reputation for getting away with murder — both literal and metaphorical — provided they pay up. Despite “conduct [that] helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” according to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., JPMorgan Chase & Co. recently settled its culpability in the 2008 global economic meltdown for $13 billion, with no criminal prosecutions or admissions of wrongdoing.

Go ahead, blow up the global economy. So long as you shell out your Q3 profits as penance, it’s not a problem.

O.J. Simpson, many of us suspect, got away with a double murder because he could afford the best legal team money could buy. Simpson’s defense cost him much of his personal wealth, but he got away with it.

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If only Simpson had waited a couple of decades.

A new case out of Texas shows that the rich don’t even need to spend their money to avoid the consequences of their actions -- simply having money in and of itself is excuse enough to get out of trouble these days.

This week, 16-year-old Ethan Couch of Fort Worth was sentenced to 10-years probation and, perhaps, inpatient rehabilitation in Southern California, for stealing beer from a store and subsequently drunkenly killing four pedestrians with his pickup truck: Brian Jennings, 43; Breanna Mitchell, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21; and her mother Hollie Boyles, 52.

In July, a judge in the same county sentenced 19-year-old Cristian Leos to eight years in prison for vehicular homicide for flipping his vehicle while intoxicated, causing the death of his own cousin, a passenger in the car.

Leos, however, apparently didn’t suffer from the burdens of extreme wealth.

Couch got his cupcake sentence thanks in part to the testimony of psychologist Gary Miller, who argued that Couch was stricken with “affluenza” — a psychosis of extreme wealth defined by an “if it feels good, do it” ethos. Couch’s wealth and coddled upbringing prevented him from learning right from wrong and “that sometimes you don’t get your way.”

We used to call people like that sociopaths. Now they have affluenza.

I’m reminded of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “American Psycho.” Bateman, a wealthy Wall Street-type, leads such a cushy life of privilege that he needs to kill in increasingly brutal fashion just to feel. He never gets caught. As long as he keeps up his mask of wealth and entitlement, he is immune from harm.

“American Psycho” isn’t meant to be literal. Bateman is a metaphor for corporate rapaciousness — a cautionary tale that companies will keep pushing the limits of their power until someone stops them. Which no one ever will, because they are rich and intimidating, with a guileless sheen. 

The affluenza verdict, however, shows that being rich is now an official scientific and legal sanction for the Patrick Batemans of the world to do as they please. Ellis’ satirical dystopia just got one step closer to reality.


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Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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