A judge on Wednesday ordered a Texas teenager who used an “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving crash to serve nearly two years in jail, a surprising sanction that far exceeds the months in jail that prosecutors initially said they would pursue.
Ethan Couch, who was appearing in adult court for the first time after he turned 19 on Monday, received 180 days for each of the four deaths in the 2013 crash.
Initially, state District Judge Wayne Salvant said he would not immediately rule on how much longer Couch would spend in the Tarrant County Jail. But he reconsidered his ruling after hearing an argument from prosecutors that Couch should be sentenced not to 120 days in jail for the crash but to 180 days for each of four counts of intoxication manslaughter under a separate part of Texas legal code.
Couch had always faced the prospect of adult jail time as part of his probation once his case had moved out of the juvenile system. Prosecutors didn’t ask the judge to declare Couch had violated his juvenile probation by fleeing to Mexico with his mother last year, or to consider it in his ruling.
Each 180-day term will be served consecutively, Salvant said. Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said it was not clear whether that would include the time Couch had already spent in jail.
Prosecutors declined to comment afterward on their strategy, citing a gag order that Salvant has issued. For months they had indicated they wouldn’t be able to get more than a few months in jail for Couch, though they said he might face decades in prison if he violated his probation again as an adult.
Salvant said he would give both sides two weeks to file any response to his sentence, suggesting he might reconsider.
The initial sentence of 10 years of probation that Couch received in juvenile court outraged prosecutors and relatives of the victims, which include one teenager who was paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.
The new jail time surprised Greg Coontz, a lawyer who represented one person killed in the crash and another who was injured. Coontz said it was good news that Couch received more punishment, but he questioned whether it was enough to rehabilitate the young man.
“In some ways it’s kind of ironic that at this point he gets so much more time than he did initially,” Coontz said. “It almost seems like it worked backward.”
The crash killed the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
Couch had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.
Couch ended up in trouble again last year when a cellphone video showed him at what appeared to be a party with alcohol. Drinking alcohol is a violation of his probation. Shortly after the video surfaced, Couch and his mother, Tonya, fled to Mexico.
The two were apprehended in Puerto Vallarta in December and sent back to the U.S. Couch has been in custody since.
Couch’s mother is charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon.
A psychologist said Couch’s parents had “taught him a system that’s 180 degrees from rational. If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry. In that family, if you hurt someone, send some money.”