Affluenza Defense Ruling Sparks Outrage in Texas
FORT WORTH (CN) - The use of "affluenza" as a legal defense in the trial of teenager drunk driver has come under growing national outrage and criticism after his acquittal.
State district Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Ethan Couch, 16, to 10 years' probation and to therapy at a California clinic on December 3.
He faced up to 20 years in state prison for his role in a June 15 collision in south Fort Worth that killed four and seriously injured nine others.
Authorities said Couch was speeding at up to 70 miles-per-hour in a 40 mph zone and his blood alcohol content was at 0.24 at the time of the wreck. This is three times the legal limit of .08 for an adult. For minors, it is against the law to drive with any alcohol in his or her system.
During the trial, defense psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller testified Couch is the product of "affluenza," where his family allegedly felt wealth bought privilege and that there was no rational link between behavior and consequences. Miller testified that Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have."
Miller has come out in defense of his testimony since the sentencing, stating he never intended the term "affluenza" to be a diagnosis and that he regretted using it.
"I think that term, 'affluenza,' which I was just using to describe what we used to call 'spoiled brats,'" Miller told WFAA-TV on Friday. "It's not a diagnosis. The diagnosis was something completely different."
Miller said he has received 110 phone calls since the trial, including several threats.
"Someone got my unlisted number. He said 'I've killed four people. I wouldn't mind killing five,'" Miller said.
Psychologist and family wealth adviser Dr. Gary Buffone, of Jacksonville, Florida, is one of Miller's critics. He says the term was never meant to be used as defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Friday. "The simple term would be spoiled brat," he said.
"Essentially what [Boyd] 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."
The controversial verdict has also drawn the ire of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who announced his office would be looking into the case.
"Any time anyone is harmed in an accident, of course, there is tremendous sympathy for the victims and their family members and sorrow for the tragedy that happened," Abbott told KTVT-TV on Friday. "But then, to see the result in something like this is just outrageous."
Abbott said his office is looking into the case to see if it can be appealed.
"The fact that someone who injured others and killed others and escaped with such a light penalty is not what you typically see in Texas," he said. "We want to visit with various different parties to see if there is an angle for the attorney general's office to play a role."
Scott Brown, Couch's defense attorney, disagrees with the criticism. He told the Star-Telegram his client could have been freed after two years if he had received the maximum prison sentence. Instead, the judge "fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years," he said.
Miller said his job was to design a therapy curriculum that Couch could not get in the Texas juvenile justice system.
Miller said his job was to design a therapy curriculum that Couch couldn't get in the juvenile justice system.
"He'll see his mother every few days if he goes to the penitentiary. He'll see his relatives. People will feel sorry for him," Miller told WFAA. "Right now, the consequences are he's a monster. He's going to have to peel that onion back. Every day, we're going to put it in his face. And for the rest of his natural life, he'll have to deal with that. Those are consequences."