In December of 2013, District Judge Jean Boyd of Texas sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years probation for killing four innocent people when he was driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit. The sentence also included a requirement that the teen get therapy, a decision that led to a national backlash among people who thought the family used its wealth and privilege to keep the teenager out of jail. The treatment is reported to cost a whopping $450,000 a year, which will be paid for entirely by the teen's family.
Psychologist G. Dick Miller, the expert witness for the defense who said the teen was suffering from "affluenza," later said he regretted his choice of words, stating: "I wish I hadn't used that term. Everyone seems to have hooked onto it. We used to call these people spoiled brats." Though he regrets the language he used, Miller stated on Anderson Cooper’s show that he doesn't regret the actual defense he was hired to prove. The basic defense is simply that due to wealth and means enjoyed by the teen throughout his life he is unable to discern between right and wrong.
The aftermath of the decision has resulted in a plethora of civil lawsuits filed against the teen’s parent, several of which were combined into one legal action recently. The plaintiffs are seeking millions of dollars from the parents of the youth. Additionally, across the country, outraged Americans are petitioning Texas Governor Rick Perry to immediately remove Jude Boyd from the bench. And there may be serious justifications for such an unprecedented move.
Nearly a decade before sentencing the teen in this case to mere probation for the drunken crash, this same judge sentenced a teen in a similar case to 20 years imprisonment, with the only discernible difference being the presence of family wealth, or lack thereof, of the defendants. The similarities between Couch's case and that of 16-year-old Eric Bradlee Miller are providing fuel to critics who say Couch received special treatment from Judge Boyd due to his family's wealth which allowed him to hide behind a questionable medical condition to avoid responsibility for his actions.
Affluenza is described as a condition where a person feels shielded from responsibility by money, having led a life of privilege paid for by his/her parents. According to the USA Today, affluenza is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, or the fifth edition of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, as a viable mental health condition. How does an alleged “psychological condition” not even recognized by the world's largest association of psychologists, with more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students members, gain enough credibility to serve as a defense to a horrific crime?
And what about the responsibility of parents to raise their children as morally sound contributors to society? Should parents be held criminally responsible for their child’s actions or inactions when laws are violated, especially when those actions result in the loss of innocent lives? Sadly, parents cannot be held criminally responsible for their child’s behavior unless they were direct participants in the criminal act. However, the victim’s family can pursue civil damages against the parents of the perpetrator. But in so many cases that option is meaningless and leads to nothing more than a hollow victory as wealthy parents can easily absorb financial penalties.
Clearly Ethan Couch’s parents have the financial wherewithal to drag out the various civil actions brought against them through expert legal maneuvering that will delay trials, and ultimately lure the plaintiffs into less than plenary settlements. But such a result will do nothing to improve the situation in our society where parents write checks and apologize on behalf of their children without holding the perpetrators accountable for their crimes and actions. This never-ending debate will ultimately cast the scales of justice into further doubt and disappointment in the eyes of the public and lead many more young people, who are not held responsible for their actions, down a path of moral destruction without accountability.