Until a few years ago, nobody had ever heard the word Affluenza.
Then, in a case that outraged the nation, State Judge Jean Boyd sentenced a North Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, to 10-years of probation for drunk driving, killing four pedestrians and injuring 11 after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison.
The defendant was witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in his father’s Ford F350, speeding (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone), with a blood alcohol three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas. Traces of Valium were also in his system.
The psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that Couch was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.
When I read the news of this startling verdict, my first thought was that the judge had been conned by an imaginary disorder described by an imaginary word. But I was wrong. The word actually exists. The book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic defines it as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
Whether affluenza is a condition that will be used again as a defense for criminal behavior is for others to decide. I certainly hope not. Most of us are deeply distressed that this young man got off with rehab after causing the death of four people.
But now we are revisiting the Ethan Couch case. The events of the past few weeks: the surfacing of a video of him drinking at a party (a violation of his parole), the subsequent disappearance of Ethan and his mother Tonya, and their apprehension in Puerto Vallarta: all of this reminds us of how the law was perverted when the affluenza defense prevailed in court. To make matters worse, when and if Couch is sent back to the U.S., the worst punishment he could face would be a maximum of 120 days in jail. Ethan’s mother’s assistance in helping her son flee the country may even go unpunished.
Personally, I believe that Ethan’s mother ought to be charged with assault with a deadly weapon, the weapon being Ethan himself!
It is abundantly clear that both mother and son believe that, if you have enough money, the laws that apply to “common citizens” do not apply to them. Now they are even fighting their return to the U.S. and they may even succeed.
Unfortunately, Couch mother and son are probably right. Being a white person with financial resources virtually guarantees a better outcome than would happen if the accused was a young black man without money. The fact that the nation’s prisons are overflowing with young people of color, many for non-violent offenses, shows just how biased our justice system is. The phrase “with liberty and justice for all” unfortunately rings hollow. If there is such a thing as affluenza, then I would have to say that it may indeed apply to a very large part of our society, primarily white people with money.
I am well aware that Ethan Couch cannot be tried again because of the law against double jeopardy. It is obvious Ethan and his mother have learned nothing from the tragedy that four people died as a consequence of his drunk driving.
The tragic miscarriage of justice in the Couch case, coupled with his flight to avoid having his parole revoked, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It could serve as a vivid example of just how skewed our justice system is, and how desperately change must come about.
The Couch case is a single, admittedly disturbing, case of the perversion of justice by those who have the means to do so. Of much greater importance and urgency is the need to address the plight of those on the other side of the street, of which there are thousands, perhaps even millions.