“Affluenza,” the affliction cited by a psychologist to argue that a teenager from a wealthy family should not be sent to prison for killing four pedestrians while driving drunk, is not a recognized diagnosis and should not be used to justify bad behavior, experts said Thursday.
A judge’s decision to give Ethan Couch, 16, of Keller, Texas, 10 years of probation for the fatal accident sparked outrage from relatives of those killed and has led to questions about the defense strategy. A psychologist testified in Couch’s trial in a Fort Worth juvenile court that as a result of “affluenza,” the boy should not receive the maximum 20-year prison sentence prosecutors were seeking.
The term “affluenza” was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It has since been used to describe a condition in which children — generally from richer families — have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, said Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family-wealth advising.
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But Buffone said in a telephone interview Thursday that the term wasn’t meant to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.
“The simple term would be spoiled brat,” he said.
“Essentially what (the judge) has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation,” Buffone said. “The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying … not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”
District Judge Jean Boyd issued her sentence Tuesday after Couch “admitted his guilt” last week in four cases of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury in the June wreck, according to a news release from the Tarrant County Prosecutor’s Office. The ruling came after the judge heard three days of testimony from witnesses, victims’ loved ones, investigators and treatment experts.
Killed in the crash were Breanna Mitchell, 24, whose car broke down the night of June 15; Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby Boyles, 21, who lived nearby and had come outside to help Mitchell; and Burleson, Texas, youth minister Brian Jennings, 43, a passer-by who had stopped to help.
Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Walmart. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to trial testimony, when he slammed into the four who died. Couch also had traces of Valium in his system at the time, according to trial testimony.
Two people riding in the bed of the teen’s pickup were severely injured. One is no longer able to move or talk because of a brain injury, while the other suffered internal injuries and broken bones.
Couch knew he was drunk before he climbed into his truck, according to witness statements read into the record by the prosecutor.
One teen said he told the teen “not to drive but he did it anyway,” according to his statement to police.
The psychologist who testified as a defense witness at Couch’s trial said the boy grew up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
But Prosecutor Richard Alpert argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family’s wealth, another tragedy is inevitable.
A message left for Boyd was not returned Thursday. The Star-Telegram reported that the judge said the programs available in the Texas juvenile-justice system may not provide the intensive therapy Couch needs. His parents had said they would pay for him to go to a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif.
Although Couch’s case was handled in juvenile court, he has been identified publicly by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.
One legal expert said he had never even heard of “affluenza.”
“The concept that I did something because I’m rich and spoiled doesn’t look like a good causation,” said Richard Segura, a supervising attorney at the University of Texas, Austin’s, Criminal Defense Clinic. “It doesn’t sound like something that would ameliorate the punishment.”
On the other hand, he said, the defense attorney would have likely looked at all the facts in the case and tailored them in a way that he thought would best influence the judge’s decision. In addition, the judge likely factored in rehabilitation, restitution and other factors when sentencing Couch, Segura said.
Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, said her research at Columbia University in New York has shown that 20 percent of upper middle-class adolescents believe their parents would help them get out of a sticky situation at school, such as being caught for the third time on campus with a bottle of vodka. Boyd’s sentence reinforces that belief.
“What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times … what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?” Luthar asked.
“We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor,” she added, noting the message is “families that have money, you can drink and drive. This is a very, very dangerous thing we’re telling our children.”
Scott Brown, Couch’s lead defense attorney, said the teenager could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence. Instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.
The deadly wreck was not Couch’s first brush with the law. Four months before the crash, he got a ticket for being drunk in a parked truck with a scantily clad 14-year-old girl, according to trial testimony.
A Fort Worth police officer investigating burglaries spotted a black Ford F-150 pickup parked off the highway and went to investigate.
Inside the pickup, the officer saw Couch and the girl, the police report said. Both were drunk.
“The girl had her shorts pulled down and was in her bra and panties and was so drunk it was difficult to get any information from her,” the report said.
“As he was released, [the teen] said ‘Thanks for ruining my life’ as if what had happened was the fault of the police,” the officer wrote in his report.
In testimony last week, LeVonna Anderson, an administrator at the Anderson Private School that Couch had once attended, testified that she was taken aback when she saw the teen, then 13, driving himself to school in a large pickup. Anderson said she confronted the teen’s father, who replied that his son was one of the best drivers he knew.
“We had harsh words about it because I knew a teen’s mind is not fully developed, and they cannot make good decisions,” Anderson testified.
That was the teen’s last year at the school, Anderson said. His parents divorced later that year, she said.
“My first concern was that he was 13 years old and he was driving a pickup,” Anderson said. “I thought about calling a law enforcement friend of mine and giving him the tag number so he could be on the lookout for him.”
Material from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is included in this report.