In many ways, the story of 16-year-old Ethan Couch is tragically familiar: a teen who enjoyed wealth and freedom winds up before a judge in a fatal drunken driving crash.
The difference is Couch, the son of well-off parents, made international headlines after a Texas judge sentenced him to 10 years’ probation — not imprisonment — for causing a June crash that left four people dead.
The sentence touched off emotional news coverage and debate, mostly focused on the use of the term “affluenza” by a defense witness trying to explain Couch’s irresponsibility.
Though the judge never cited the term during sentencing, according to reports, the case has touched a raw nerve about the connection between wealth and justice.
“The children of the affluent are already privileged,” said Dr. Daniel S. Blumenthal, an associate dean for community health at the Morehouse School of Medicine and father of two grown children. “They don’t need the additional privilege of being allowed to break the law, even to the extent of killing people while intoxicated, with near-impunity.”
Blumenthal said Couch should receive the same treatment as if his parents were poor.
Said Dorie Griggs, a 54-year-old Roswell mother of three: “Families who do not set boundaries, and do not let consequences to be paid for negative actions enable the entitlement mentality.
“Our society in general seems to nurture the idea that if you have money you can buy your way out of any trouble.”
The term “affluenza” dates at least to the 1980s to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege.
Some believe that while therapists and psychologists argue “affluenza” isn’t a real affliction, courts could begin to see a slew of similar defenses.
By whatever name, delinquent behavior combined with minimal consequences or none at all often seems more acceptable among wealthy parents of “out-of-control” teenage boys, said Evan Katz, a licensed professional counselor in Sandy Springs and author of the book, “Inside the Mind of an Angry Man”.
“At any given time I have at least a couple of kids with very similar behaviors in my office,” Katz said. “Their parents have bailed them out at every turn with money or material things and the kids form a pathology or mindset that says they are invincible. They lose sight of empathy of feeling for others or personal responsibility. There is a sense of entitlement and no expectation of consequence.”
The June crash near Fort Worth wasn’t Couch’s first run-in. He’d been arrested on other alcohol-related charges, according to news reports of trial testimony.
In the case decided last week, Couch had admitted to being drunk when his pickup veered off a road and touched off collisions that killed four pedestrians and injured two people in the truck.
A psychologist hired by the defense testified that because Couch had gotten off without serious punishment in the past, he could not be seriously punished in this case either.
Judge Jean Boyd has not explained her sentencing, which left Couch subject to imprisonment for 10 years if he violates probation. Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault.
Some experts said the sentence was in keeping with broader trends toward strict probation with mandatory treatment for youthful offenders, rather than incarceration.
Griggs, who grew up in an affluent New Jersey neighborhood and raised her own children in a similarly wealthy Roswell neighborhood, said Couch’s story is familiar to her.
“I’ve seen this come to play in North Fulton where there is a wide disparity in economic circumstances,” she said.
“The parents who can afford attorneys and bond money are able to get their children out of jail to wait for a trial, while others have to make a choice between putting up the bond money to get their child out of jail or letting them stay in jail and putting their money into retaining an attorney with the hope they can get them off for time served.
“It is heart breaking.”
Griggs said the Texas case is “appalling and speaks more to the inequities of a justice system where affluent families and their offspring benefit from high priced personal attorneys. It is unbelievable that a judge would allow this teen to get off with probation and not spend anytime behind bars.”
Ruben Brown of Atlanta, a father of two children aged 20 and 16, said the case sets a dangerous precedent.
“Punishment should be meted out equally, whether you’re rich or poor,” he said. “Justice should be blind and in this instant it doesn’t appear to be.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.