“Affluenza,” the word, is a punch line, the little pop at the end of a set-up that makes a joke a joke.
Some people hold that the law in general and the criminal justice system in particular is also a joke. Perhaps that’s why Scott Brown, defense attorney, could use the term, affluenza, as a formal defense in the case of Ethan Couch.
Ethan Couch is the 16 year old son of wealthy and divorced parents residing in Texas. A proud son of Texas, Ethan’s been drinking since he was 13 when his father, reported to be an “evil” man, first introduced Ethan to the pleasures of intoxication. As one might expect, Ethan has had some troubles with the law. However, in each instance Ethan was able to purchase a “get out of jail card” with his father’s money, price being no object.
On June 15, 2013, Ethan the Untouchable went on a toot. With some friends he stole a couple of cases of beer, drank most of it, which raised his blood alcohol level to three times the legal limit. Then he went on a reckless high speed joyride. It ended when Ethan struck and killed four pedestrians and critically injured two of his friends who were in the bed of the pick-up.
Since Ethan is alleged to suffer from a mental disease that hinders his ability to appreciate the consequences of his actions, what he did and what he caused bears repeating for his benefit alone: Ethan Couch drove drunk at an unlawful speed. He struck and killed four pedestrians, and injured two others. Four people no longer walk this earth, love their loved ones, love their children, honor their parents or will see the sun rise, because Couch did what he did, and, despite everything, couldn’t care less about it.
At least that’s what his lawyer, Scott Brown, argued. Ethan can’t care less, because Ethan’s wealthy and evil parents never taught him to care more.
Attorney Brown argued that Ethan suffers from affluenza. That’s affluenza with an “a,” and if spell check doesn’t pick it up, it’s because the word does not exist.
Ethan’s a thin kid with one of those yet to be formed teenage faces that makes him look younger than his years. He’s of average height and his blonde hair is brushed forward in a tame bowl cut. His nose is too short in his round face, and his eyes have the sleepy look of the back row student who never seems all there. He gives the impression that the world around him is a constant surprise posing some interest, but little danger other than the transition from one minor activity to another.
It boggles the mind and the collective sense of fair play that such an unremarkable, albeit wealthy boy should be responsible for the death of four people. Because he’s only 16, that august dean of the Texas Bar, Judge Jean Boyd, heard Ethan’s case in juvenile court.
Criminal defense attorneys have a difficult job. More often than not they represent those charged with crimes that would drive most mild mannered people to rage. Ethan’s lawyer was impressive in his appearance, his presentation and his obvious skill, but he still had to work with the facts he was given: His client was a spoiled rich kid with an untreated alcohol problem. His client drove over the speed limit while dead-drunk and killed four people and critically injured two others. His client has a history of trouble, but has been in the habit of buying his way out of it. Attorney Brown knew that any self respecting jury would have applied common sense and crucified the kid. However, because Ethan’s still a juvenile, Attorney Scott was pleased to argue his defense to one judge, the above referenced Jean Boyd, who by all reports offered Attorney Brown her rapt and sympathetic attention.
Any trial lawyer knows enough money can buy any so-called expert to say whatever the “wallet” wants him to say. Scott Brown went out and purchased just such an expert with the evil father’s money. This expert, a unknown psychologist of no repute, instructed the brilliant Judge Boyd on the awful mental illness of affluenza, a disease that is recognized by no medical authority other than the testifying psychologist, Attorney Brown, a few SNL comedy writers, and Judge Boyd herself. With the eloquent stylings of his expert, Attorney Brown told the joke with a straight face. He argued that Ethan should not be sent to prison despite the tragedy that happened (N.B. the passive voice; Defense attorneys are masters of the passive voice). Again, he argued that because Ethan suffers from affluenza, a moral failing and sad defect of character, the poor boy has no appreciation for the consequences of his wrongful acts.
Affluenza is an acquired illness, more nurture than nature, generally caused, as in this case, by evil and wealthy parents (designated as affluenza patients zero and one) who taught Ethan since birth that being wealthy affords the wealthy special treatment. They also taught Ethan that he was immune from prosecution or punishment and that he enjoyed these privileges not because the wealthy don’t commit crimes, but because money can solve all problems, especially those problems attendant to the consequences of crimes.
The Judge raised her head and dried her eyes. Poor Ethan, she thought, that half-baked little rich kid is as terminal as the poor children in the children’s hospital. To think how he had to struggle all his young life with the burden of knowing that he can do any thing he wants, without having to pay one bit of attention to the consequences of his acts. The horror.
Responsibility, the prosecution cried out. What about responsibility? And soon they learned that things like responsibility is for the healthy children whose lives haven’t been as damaged as Ethan’s life has been, having grown up wealthy in Texas with parents from Mars.
As Ethan’s father is reported to have said to his teenage son: If it feels good, boy, then just go ahead and do it. One wonders how good Ethan felt when he realized he’d killed four people and had injured two others. One can only guess what Ethan felt when Judge Boyd sentenced him to ten years probation without any prison time at all.
In the 18th Century the famous writer, scholar, editor and wit, Samuel Johnson stated for generations to hear: “The law is an a**.”
There are times and circumstances that render the law and its courts a poor forum to provide adequate and common sense justice. In a Texas juvenile court this week, Judge Jean Boyd, whether she intended the result or not, proved the understatement everybody believes concerning the American criminal justice system. There are, in fact and practice, three justice systems: one for the wealthy, one for the poor and certain minorities, and one for everybody else. In a Texas juvenile court this week the prosecution was out-gunned, the defense attorney earned his fee, the Judge embarrassed herself, the survivors cried, and Ethan ….?
Ethan’s off to a country club rehab in California at a price tag of half-a-mill a year, to be paid annually by the evil affluenza-challenged father. In that spa health resort rehab, high priced nurses and orderlies will treat Ethan’s affluenza with every luxury half-a-mill can buy. As for consequences, a doctor might prescribe one or two, but not so many as to overwhelm the sleepy eyed boy who doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
Samuel Johnson knew exactly what he was talking about.
By Michael Hogan