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On June 15, 16-year-old Ethan Couch turned the ignition of a Ford truck, drove 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, and killed four pedestrians who were working on a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Couch had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit for an adult. He tested positive for Valium. Among Couch’s seven passengers, two were critically injured—one so severely he is paralyzed and communicates by blinking his eyes. Sergio Molina’s parents are suing Couch and his father’s business (the Ford was owned by the company) for $20 million, the expected cost of their son’s care.
Couch admitted he was drunk but a psychologist explained the teen’s behavior using the “affluenza” defense, a condition characterized by great wealth—so excessive that one doesn’t know right from wrong. In other words, Couch was given too much by his parents: too many toys, motorcycles, cars, STUFF (supposedly, even his own mansion), and not enough of what he needed: positive role models, caring, and responsible guidance. When Couch followed his every impulse, it must have been with certainty that his parents would use their wealth/status to mitigate accountability. And use him to battle each other after an acrimonious divorce.
According to attorney notes, Couch said to one of his passengers at the crash scene, “I’m Ethan Couch, I’ll get you out of this.”
Texas District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and ordered him to receive in-patient therapy, a year at a posh facility near Newport Beach, California. The price tag for this treatment exceeds $450,000.
Judge Boyd’s decision must have been influenced by “affluenza” as well.
I’d just read about this case online when Laura called. She and Erma had seen the story on TV. “You have to write an article. Compare this to the un-moneyed and un-fluenza,” Laura said.
I continued to think about Couch, his parents, the dead and injured, the judge’s decision, “affluenza” and “un-fluenza.” Separate and unequal, multiple justice systems operate throughout this land of and for the opportunistic. Sergio Molina’s brother said, “If he [Couch] were poor, like us, he would’ve gotten 10 years, I bet.”
Later I lay in bed, considering all that was summoned to tumble in my mind. When Laura and Erma came for dinner a couple of evenings later, I confessed to something that Erma, who has children, understands. If either of us sat in a courtroom, awaiting the verdict and sentencing of one of our children, neither would want to jail time—even if we knew that child had driven drunk, had killed four people.
Really, I’d do just about anything to prevent the incarceration of my sons, at that age—any age. I can shake my head, feel outrage towards the judge (who meted out more “affluenza” for Couch), outrage at Couch’s indifference, outrage, outrage, outrage, and contempt for his parents, but if he were my child, I’d be relieved. Despite knowing the punishment is inconsonant with the crime.
Yet as I write, see these words, I wonder. Could either of my children commit a crime so hideous I’d reconsider, want him behind bars?
I’ve employed the tough love tactic and intimately know its benefits. It’s a frightening approach. I’m fortunate it succeeded. Had it not, I don’t know if I’d have followed through on the punishment I threatened, that edict, “You’re on your own if…” Really, I don’t know.
Charles and I raised our sons to consider the appropriate consequences of their decisions—to be emotionally healthy, not like Couch’s mother and father who rushed in with the inappropriate—the stay-out-of-jail money card. Obviously, they failed miserably to teach their son to do no harm, to value life over acquisitions.
No one knows what this broken family will learn, if anything. Do they think of the dead, the families of the dead? Do the parents wish they’d conducted themselves differently?
Ethan Couch may believe he’s entitled to make his own rules. Or maybe he’ll identify in at rehab, shed the artificial layers. Once denuded of self-deception, he possibly could become a productive member of society.
Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.