A Texas judge’s sentence in a drunk driving case is sending shock waves across the nation and bringing out a wide variety of reactions.
A teenager was found guilty of killing four people and injuring ten in a drunk driving accident but avoided prison time. Jean Boyd, Texas State Judge for District 323 sentenced Ethan Couch, 16, to probation rather than the 20 years in prison that the prosecutors were hoping would be the ruling. In her decision, Boyd indicated an agreement with the defense that Couch ‘s crime was a direct result of growing up in an affluent home, a condition also known as “affluenza” which refers to wealth buying privilege and there being no rational link between behavior and consequences.
Dr. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist, was called upon during the trial to testify for the defense. He told a reporter that he felt that Judge Boyd did act responsibly and in the best interests of Couch. He further said that because of the wealth that Couch was born into, he has been allowed to do whatever he wished since the day he was born. He went on to say that the teenager was largely responsible for his own upbringing.
His parents were very emotionally volatile and had a relationship that could be characterized as co-dependent. In addition, they went through a very bitter divorce. Miller described Couch’s father as one with a controlling personality but also said that his mother often used her son as an instrument to get what she wanted from her husband. He said that Couch had an intellectual age of around 12 years old.
Miller went on to say that the teen was never made to apologize for anything but rather was shown that you simply sent money to someone you may have hurt. He argued that Couch grew up on a sick system and would only be thrown into another equally sick system if placed in jail. He felt that Couch should be given some type of help and stated that he believed that the young man could eventually become a valuable member of society and even one day, make retribution to the pain he caused others in this incident.
Couch was in the company of seven other teenagers that night. They had stolen the alcohol from a local Wal-Mart immediately before the drunk driving induced wreck took place. On the scene, Couch was tested and reportedly had a blood alcohol level of .24. He was driving in a 40 mile per hour zone at 70 miles per hour. According to reports, Couch clipped a sports utility vehicle parked on the side of the street and ran into four people, including a youth minister at a local Baptist church. Reports showed that he had a very belligerent attitude at the scene.
Breanna Mitchell was returning home from a catering job at a Fort Worth museum when she had a flat tire. Two local residents, 52-year-old Hollie Boyles and her 21-year-old daughter, Shelbie, were on foot to the scene to offer Mitchell assistance. Youth Pastor Brian Jennings also pulled over to help out. All four were standing outside of Mitchell’s vehicle when Couch struck them with his vehicle. A crash expert who examined the scene said that the vehicle was going about sixty eight miles per hour and never braked.
The victim’s families have not been supportive of Judge Boyd’s decision. Eric Boyles, husband of Hollie and father of Shelbie, expressed disappointment and said that money always kept Couch out of trouble. He believed it served the same purpose in the verdict. He voiced the opinion that circumstances would have been different if it had been any other teenager.
Marla Mitchell, mother of Breanna, reminded reporters that the young man had not actually been set free because she believed that judgment was ultimately in the hands of a higher power.
Shaunna Jennings, wife of Pastor Jennings, said she and the rest of her family made the decision a long time ago to forgive Couch.
Although families were obviously the most upset by the sentence, others in the Burleson,Texas community and surrounding area also were passionate in making their displeasure known. Drunk driving violations in Texas are usually met with strict punishment and a wide variety of voices have been raised in reaction to the sentence.
Sheila Sotherlund is a licensed paramedic and has worked more than her share of tragic automobile accidents. On her Facebook page, she voiced much anger at both Judge Boyd and the defense attorney.
“We have hit a new all-time low when the attorney’s best defense is basically ‘I’m a spoiled rotten little brat and I think I can get away with anything.’ Even worse…. the judge fell for it. What kind of precedent is that setting? “ Sotherlund said.
Sotherlund also had her own ideas for an appropriate sentence.
“Part of that kid’s punishment should be to NEVER have a driver’s license. He should also have to ride along with PD, FD or EMS and see up close & personal what it’s like to watch someone die in the ditch on the side of the road… Every teenager in America knows it is illegal for them to drink and that it is illegal for everyone to drink and drive. The next time I hold someone’s hand while they take their last breath or lift the rear axle off the chest of a once beautiful young person or just end up covered in someone else’s blood, I’ll go find the drunk and tell him ‘Just tell the judge it was affluenza.’”
Jimmy Humphus, a local pastor with No Turning Back Prison Ministry works with ex-offenders and parolees on a daily basis. Humphus says when he heard the sentence, he could not believe his ears.
“It’s a shame that money can buy your way out of going to prison,” Humphus said. “What about all the men and women that couldn’t afford a lawyer that’s doing life for the same thing?”
Some teenagers in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex also voiced displeasure at the verdict. Madisen Stubbs, a high school student at ACI Academy in Fort Worth told a reporter that in this case, the punishment did not fit the crime.
“A person who is adult enough to drive should be adult enough to take the responsibility of his actions. He was drinking the alcohol that he obtained illegally,” said Stubbs. She further stated that she believed the sentence of 10 years probation was not enough punishment for taking the lives of four people.
One of her classmates, Miguel Romero, voiced similar sentiments.
“I believe this teen should be put in prison mainly because everything he did was illegal and because he killed four innocent people for some wrong actions he took that night.” Romero said.
Although there were many voices of anger against the sentence, there were also a few that understood or supported the decision.
Scott Sharman, pastor of Alsbury Baptist Church in Burleson (where Brian Jennings was youth minister) said that there was much behind the decision.
“There is much more to the story that brought the judge to this sentence. She is a sincere and serious Christ follower. Her reasoning, while not shared by all, is understandable.” Sharman said.
Julie Luna is an ex-offender herself. In 2005, she was high on painkillers when she struck an 11-year-old child with her vehicle and killed him. She served six years in prison and recently watched the news report on the drunk driving fatalities with interest. From her point of view, she would not want anyone to have to go to prison if it can be avoided.
“Prison is a horrible place,” Luna said as she reflected on her years as an inmate with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “If there is a way someone can be rehabilitated and pay for their crimes without having to go to prison, then I’m all for it.”
Efforts were made to reach Judge Jean Boyd at her office. However, the administrative assistant said that the Judge was “prohibited” from commenting on any of her cases. A wide variety of reactions will more than likely continue to be voiced over the sentence of probation for a drunk driving incident that saw four lives end. The impact of that decision begins to slowly take shape.
By Rick Hope