A North Texas teen from an affluent family received a probation-only sentence this week for losing control of his pickup truck while drunk and killing four pedestrians, a punishment that has outraged the victims' families and left prosecutors disappointed.
The 16-year-old boy, Ethan Couch, was sentenced Tuesday in a Fort Worth juvenile court to 10 years of probation after he confessed to charges of intoxication manslaughter in the June 15 crash on a dark rural road.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 20 years in state custody for the Keller teen, but his attorneys appealed to state District Judge Jean Boyd that he needed rehabilitation instead of imprisonment, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Authorities said Couch 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 testimony during the trial. His pickup truck slammed into the four pedestrians, killing 43-year-old Burleson youth minister Brian Jennings; Breanna Mitchell, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21, and her 52-year-old mother, Hollie Boyles.
Prosecutor Richard Alpert argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family's wealth, another tragedy is likely in his future.
"There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here," he said.
Boyd said the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the kind of intensive therapy the teen could receive at a rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif., that was suggested by his defense attorneys. The parents would pick up the tab for the center, which runs more than $450,000 a year for treatment.
Scott Brown, the boy's lead defense attorney, said the teen could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence.
"(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.
Survivors of those killed in the accident drew little comfort from that assurance.
Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, believes the family's wealth helped the teen avoid incarceration.
"Money always seems to keep you out of trouble," Boyles said. "Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different."
Shaunna Jennings, the widow of the minister, said her family had forgiven the teen but believed a sterner punishment was needed.
"You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this," she said. "My fear is that it will get you out of this."
A psychologist called as an expert defense witness said the boy suffered from "affluenza," a term used to describe the emotional pitfalls of consumerism and excess wealth, and grew up in a house where parents were preoccupied with arguments with each other that led to a divorce.
The father "does not have relationships, he takes hostages," psychologist Gary Miller said, and the mother was indulgent. "Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it," he said.