Teen killer’s ‘affluenza’ defense is a lot of baloney


It’s hard to hear the details of Ethan Couch’s crimes without flinching.

Last June, the 16-year-old Texan plowed his father’s pickup truck into a group of Good Samaritans helping a disabled vehicle on a narrow residential street in a Ft. Worth suburb. He killed four, including a mother and daughter, and permanently maimed two of his seven teenage passengers, one of whom landed on his head, and is permanently paralyzed.

But it’s even more painful to hear about the punishment handed down Thursday by Texas State District Judge Jean Boyd, who sentenced Couch to 10 years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter, according to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.


Prosecutors, the paper said, had asked the judge to send Couch to a lock-up facility for 20 years.

Instead of incarceration, Couch will be allowed to receive therapy at a California residential rehabilitation program, which his divorced parents will pay for, at an estimated cost of about $450,000.

It’s not clear exactly what persuaded the judge to throw her common sense out the window, but many have speculated that she bought the baloney peddled by defense psychologist G. Dick Miller, who explained that Couch would be ill-served by a prison term, as he suffers from a condition called “affluenza.”

“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” the Star-Telegram quoted Miller as saying. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”

Affluenza, Miller acknowledged to CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, is “not a medical term.” The psychologist said that it means “You have too much and you don’t know how to distribute it.”

At Cooper’s prompting, Miller acknowledged that the boy was “a spoiled brat.”

The affluenza claim rightfully strikes the most absurd note since Dan White’s infamous 1979 “Twinkie defense.” Psychologists have loosely used the term for years to describe the emotional pitfalls unique to children raised in affluent settings.

In this case, it’s being used tautologically, and non-sensically: A rich kid whose divorced, dysfunctional parents set no rules and imposed no consequences will not strictly be held accountable for taking four lives and ruining two others because his rich, divorced, dysfunctional parents set no rules and imposed no consequences.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against the Couch family, including one by Sergio Molina, the 15-year-old who landed on his head after being thrown from the bed of the truck. Molina, who can only communicate by blinking, is asking for $21 million in damages.

According to Molina’s lawsuit, Ethan Couch already had a history of alcohol-related offenses before this collision. Four months earlier, when he was 15, the boy was arrested and charged with two counts of illegal alcohol possession, to which he pleaded no contest.

At the time of the fatal crash, described as “one of the most horrific” in the history of Tarrant County, Couch had had his driver’s license for just two months and was not legally allowed to have anyone younger than 21 in his vehicle.

Couch was going 70 mph on the dark, narrow street when he crashed.

You really wonder what the outcome of this case might have been had the drunk driver been from the other side of the tracks.

“If you have a child who grew up in the inner city, and the parents abused crack, and [the child] was abused all along and grew up at the age of 16 and ran over four people, how likely is it the public or culture would say, ‘You must understand, what the child did was a result of his upbringing’?” Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar asked CNN. It’s hard to justify such a vastly different approach taken toward inner-city children versus those in affluence.”

I’ve been writing recently about the “knockout game” hysteria that has been promulgated by media outlets taken with the idea that roving groups of black teenagers are assaulting unsuspecting white victims just for the hell of it. My take is that assaults have occurred, yes, but there’s no proof that there is a “trend” or an “uptick” in such attacks.

But when you get people worked up and exploit their racial fears and anxieties, you end up with proposals like the one advanced last month by Republican New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who has vowed to introduce a bill that would require anyone arrested in such an attack to be tried as an adult and face a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

Then you get a rich white kid who pleads guilty to killing four people and grievously injuring two others. Instead of being tried as an adult, or getting 20 years behind bars, he gets to spend time in a fancy rehab center near Newport Beach, where, as Anderson Cooper angrily noted, he will have access to equine therapy, mixed martial arts, cooking classes and beach visits.

I don’t know about you, but that just kind of knocks me out.

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Twitter: @robinabcarian