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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Affluenza’ Killer Hires ‘Rock Star’ Attorney

FORT WORTH (CN) - "Affluenza" killer Ethan Couch's "rock star" Mexican attorney criticized his own government and the people who've sent him hate mail since he agreed to fight extradition for the fugitive 18-year-old.

Fernando Benitez, of Tijuana, said he has received hate mail since he was hired on Dec. 29 to represent Couch, the day after he and his mother Tonya were arrested in Mexico.

"I am pretty disappointed at some of the emails I have got," Benitez told the BBC on Sunday. "They don't know anything about me. They don't know what I am doing."

Benitez said he sleeps "like a baby" despite the criticism for taking the case.

"You can't appease everybody so I am going to appease myself and I am going to do what I think is right," he said. "I have more experience than most people in dealing with what's right and wrong so I am going to let my own moral compass be the guide."

The Couches were arrested on Dec. 28 in Puerto Vallarta, after being on the run from Texas authorities for two weeks. Tonya Couch, 48, was deported days later and was arrested by U.S. Marshals upon arrival in Los Angeles. If convicted of hindering apprehension , she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in state prison.

Couch stirred public outrage when he was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years probation and therapy for killing four people in south Fort Worth in 2013 while driving drunk on stolen beer. He vanished in December after failing to check in with a probation officer, after a Twitter user posted a video that appears to show him playing beer pong. He is prohibited from drinking while on probation.

Benitez won a three-day stay of deportation for Couch after filing a writ of amparo on Dec. 29, a constitutional protection similar to a writ of habeas corpus.

Benitez argued that Couch has not committed any crime in Mexico. He declined to say who is paying for his legal services.

"My interest is that if they are looking for his extradition to the United States, that it proceeds only according to the constitution and the law," Benitez told NBC-affiliate KXAS-TV in Dallas.

Benitez made headlines in 2014 when he represented U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who was accused of crossing into Mexico with several weapons in his vehicle. Prosecutors eventually dropped charges and Tahmooressi was set free after spending more than 200 days in jail.

Benitez made headlines in 2011 when he represented the powerful and wealthy politician Jorge Hank Rhon, a former mayor of Tijuana, the owner of Mexico's largest sports betting company, Grupo Caliente, and a Tijuana racetrack. Federal authorities raided his home in 2011 and seized 88 guns, two of which allegedly could be linked to homicides by ballistic evidence. Benitez argued successfully that the raid was conducted without a search warrant and that the evidence was all inadmissible, resulting in the charges being dropped.

Benitez said it would be in "poor taste" to speculate on his odds of winning Couch's case.

"I think we need to get the response back from the authorities," he told the BBC. "Once I know what their position is, I can tell you if they are right or wrong."


Benitez said he will meet his client on Tuesday and determine if he is willing to "spend several months in Mexico" fighting deportation.

He said he does not know why Mexico is trying to deport Couch instead of relying on the 1978 extradition treaty with the United States.

"It would be a tough sell for the US. to tell Mexico, 'You know what? This man was tried as a juvenile, pled guilty, was handed down his sentence and now five years later we don't think the sentence is fair and we want to retry him as an adult,'" Benitez told the BBC. "Mexico is never going to go along with that."

He said Mexico is trying to deport Couch because his passport was not stamped at the point of entry.

"In a sense, what is happening is that they are using deportation in lieu of extradition. I'll bet you a million dollars that 99.9 percent of the tourists in Puerto Vallarta as we speak did not stamp their passport - are you going to deport all of them too?"

"We need to raise a new argument, an innovative argument, to say deportation is not really deportation in this case - there's an extradition disguised as a deportation here. He's not being expelled because he didn't stamp his passport. He's being expelled because the Americans are waiting for him to subject him to a criminal trial."

It's uncertain why Couch would want to fight deportation from Mexico. Though he has eight years remaining on probation, Texas prosecutors say he faces a maximum of four months in state jail for fleeing to Mexico, so long as his case remains in juvenile court.

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said last week that she is bound by Boyd's sentence in juvenile court.

"That probation can be revoked - it is an anomaly of Texas law that if we revoke his juvenile sentence he would be held at a juvenile facility until his 19th birthday, which is April 11, 2016," Wilson said. "His maximum sentence is four months in confinement. That, in my opinion, is not a sufficient punishment for the taking of four lives."

Conditions in Mexican jails and prisons are notoriously worse than in the United States, though, also notoriously, prisoners with money can buy just about anything they like in Mexico.

"It's a wonder to me why he'd want to stay in a Mexican jail," one U.S. legal worker with experience in prisons on both side of the border told Courthouse News.

Couch killed mother and daughter Hollie and Shelby Boyles, youth pastor Brian Jennings and Breanna Mitchell. He was driving a truck as much as 30 mph over the speed limit and had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 - three times the legal limit for adults. It is illegal in Texas for a minor to drive with any alcohol in his system.

Defense psychologist G. Dick Miller testified at trial that Couch was a product of "affluenza:" that his family felt their wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences. Miller said Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have."

Texas officials said the Couches held a "going away party" before fleeing the country.

Couch's U.S. attorneys, Scott Brown and Wm. Reagan Wynn in Fort Worth, said they helped the Couches find local counsel in Mexico because they are not licensed to practice law there.

"We believe that until the Mexican federal judge enters an appropriate order authorizing it, Ethan will not be returned to the United States," they said in a statement Wednesday. "We are uncertain how long the legal process in Mexico will take or how it will ultimately be resolved."

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