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Teen uses 'affluenza' defense, gets probation in deadly Texas drunken driving case

By Ramit Plushnick-Masti

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 01:02 p.m. HST, Dec 12, 2013

HOUSTON » "Affluenza," the affliction cited by a psychologist to argue that a North Texas 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 today.

A judge's decision to give 16-year-old Ethan Couch 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, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family wealth advising.

But Buffone said in a telephone interview today 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 he (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."

The psychologist testifying as a defense witness at Couch's trial testified that 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.

Prosecutor Richard Alpert argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family's wealth, another tragedy is inevitable.

Although Couch's case was handled in juvenile court, he has been identified publicly by the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office.

Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, told The Associated Press that 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. District Judge Jean Boyd's sentence, issued Tuesday, 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."

Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. 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. His truck slammed into the four pedestrians, killing Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.

Judge Boyd decided the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the intensive therapy the teen could receive at a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif., that the parents would pay for.

Scott Brown, the boy's lead defense attorney, said he 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.

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HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
I guess they have "liberal" judges in Texas as well!
on December 12,2013 | 05:38AM
nitpikker wrote:
typical texas justice.
on December 12,2013 | 05:40AM
HOSSANA wrote:
On the contrary, that is not, I repeat, NOT typical Texas justice. Typical Texas justice is that that punk would have been convicted and sentenced the full 20 yrs. Don't forget that Texas is the ONLY state in this country that has executed more people per year ever since they reinstated the death penalty in the U.S. I definitely don't want to be convicted of anything in that State unlike in the 50th state where liberalism prevail among our IDIOT BLEEDING HEART JUDGES.
on December 12,2013 | 06:40AM
RichardCory wrote:
LOL, show me just 10 cases of similar instances of "typical Texas justice." Nah, I'll be nice--just show me five. I'm waiting.
on December 12,2013 | 06:42AM
State of Texas vs. Coleman, Humprey vs. MADD of Texas, Santiago vs. Bingham, Armadillo vs State of Texas, and DDAMM vs The People of the State of Texas. BTW, DDAMM (Drunk Drivers against Madd Mothers.)
on December 12,2013 | 07:41AM
kailuabred wrote:
Money is everything....doesn't matter if the judge is conservative or liberal.
on December 12,2013 | 05:45AM
bekwell wrote:
There needs to be another name for courts. Justice is not correct.
on December 12,2013 | 06:00AM
Charliegrunt wrote:
Exactly! When the courts fail to provide the justice they were created for, why are they surprised when people seek justice on their own? Think of that man who lost his wife and daughter. This kid kills four people after stealing beer and driving drunk, and he's going to get 10 years probation? That's going to teach him the error of his ways? Give me a break!
on December 12,2013 | 07:30AM
loquaciousone wrote:
If that kid had been black and poor he would have gotten the death sentence.
on December 12,2013 | 06:10AM
Compassionate_Cat wrote:
You are absolutely right. It's the money, then the prejudice. Here, it would be different too. Hawaii has different prejudices, pro Japanese and Hawaiian, Chinese, yet anti European, calling anyone not Asian or Polynesian, a "haole", non-friendly "foreigner". Seems in this world, having money is the answer, then color doesn't matter...
on December 12,2013 | 07:37AM
whatcanisay wrote:
If the kid was black or white or yellow and POOR, he would have gotten the death sentence.
on December 12,2013 | 08:30AM
HanabataDays wrote:
The kid's parents have enough money to pay for a $450k/yr rehab in California? Good. Let the families of those he struck down sue 'em for every last penny.
on December 12,2013 | 06:32AM
HOSSANA wrote:
I agree....oh, how I agree.....
on December 12,2013 | 06:42AM
primo1 wrote:
Hopefully civil suits are forthcoming.
on December 12,2013 | 09:35AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
On the surface that sounds reasonable. But think about this: It basically puts a financial value on each of the victims' lives. And the recipients can then profit from the victims' loss of their lives. Let's say this family member gets an amount and decides that now that he has money, he can go on a cruise ship and even go on a world trip to alleviate the pain of his loss. How does this make it right? The brother or sister of the victim who may not even have been close to the victim will all of a sudden see a cash windfall. As I see it, the only punishment that would put some kind of value to the victims' lives is prison time. You take someone's life, you put your life out of commission by spending time in prison. I do not agree with what the judge handed down to this youth as it belittles the lives of the victims. Further, it teaches the people that if you have the money, you can get away with just about anything. In this case, they can buy their way out of real justice. The troubling thing is that this youth is being taught the wrong message.
on December 12,2013 | 09:44AM
cojef wrote:
Aw no! Not in California, we live not too far from Newport Beach and that means he may be driving on California streets and highways? Hope not, but with all that money, he could purchase a license with connected lawyers.
on December 12,2013 | 11:08AM
HOSSANA wrote:
That is NOT typical Texas justice. Typical Texas justice is when that punk would have been convicted and sentenced the full 20 yrs. in prison. Nothing more and nothing less.
on December 12,2013 | 06:42AM
Well it is obviously nothing More.
on December 12,2013 | 07:43AM
samidunn wrote:
Justice is not blind.
on December 12,2013 | 09:51AM
konag43 wrote:
this is why the teens are so bad now days becuase they have parents and stupid judges that think he will change. not going to happened. what is probation for 4 peoples lives. they should have given him both jail time and probation maybe then he will feel some sorrow for what he did. infact all the kids in the veh should be charged.
on December 12,2013 | 10:23AM
Bdpapa wrote:
Affluentza what kind of B S is that? I'm okay with the sentence but I'm wondering about the terms of the probation. To accept Affluentza as a defense is dumb. The judge should have told that Dr. To get real. I can't believe it.
on December 12,2013 | 11:36AM
Papakolea wrote:
I agree about the affluenza kabuki. But whether you agree with the sentence or not, you gotta admit that the family attorney earned his pay and the prosecutor got schooled.
on December 12,2013 | 12:05PM
Bdpapa wrote:
You are absolutely correct.
on December 12,2013 | 01:56PM
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