Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Novel, for now, Affluenza Defense

Ethan Couch was driving a Ford F350 pickup truck with six friends (two were riding in the bed of the pickup) near Fort Worth, Texas on June 15, 2013. The 16 year old Couch started the tragedy by stealing beer from a Walmart. Eric proceeded to tank up, with a blood alcohol content of .24, three times the legal level. His blood also tested positive for Valium. Breanna Mitchell had a flat tire on her SUV. Three friends, acting as Good Samaritans, were helping her change the tire on the side of the road. The drunk Eric, driving 70 in a 40MPH zone, moved them down. They were tossed up to 60 yards in the air. All four died. The four deceased victims were 43 year old Brian Jennings, a youth minister, 52 year old Hollie Boyles, her 21 year old daughter Shelby Boyles, and the 24 year old Breanna. In addition, two of the pickup truck passengers were severely injured. Sergio Molina was riding in the bed. He is now paralyzed from the neck down, unable to speak in a near coma. His family has already incurred $1 million in medical costs, which they cannot afford to pay. They call their life a “living hell” since the tragedy. Justice to a criminal defense attorney is winning an acquittal, pleading to a lesser offense, or receiving a lighter sentence than deserved, Lawyers can be very creative in advancing new theories and arguments for their clients. Scott Brown, Couch’s defense attorney, sprung Affluenza on the courthouse scene last week in Texas. Basically it is a spoiled rich kids defense. These brats are so spoiled and sheltered that they do not know the difference between right and wrong. Their parents do not teach them the limits of acceptable and proper behavior. We know the type. The parents are quick to intervene, even with a lawyer and lawsuit, if their “little angel” runs afoul of school authorities, is caught cheating, or is arrested for drugs or alcohol violations. Criminal defense attorneys often cast blame on the victim, especially if the victim is deceased. Scott Brown called Dr. Gary Miller, a psychologist to the stand on behalf of the defendant. Dr. Miller couldn’t blame the innocent victim, so he blamed the parents. He claimed they gave Ethan whatever he wanted including “freedoms no young person should have.” He asserted Ethan had an intellectual age of 18, but an emotional age of only 12, in other words a case of arrested development. He asserted Ethan Couch was the product of Affluenza. The youth never understood the need to be sorry; instead, you simply send money to rectify a problem. He could not understand the relationship between behavior and consequences. So much for “Honor thy Father.” Dr. Miller’s opinion of the criminal justice system is shown by this statement: “This kid’s been in a system that’s sick. If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.” That’s no justification for releasing him back into society. Affluenza rivals the 1979 urban myth of the “Twinkies Defense.” Dan White, former supervisor in San Francisco assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White’s defense was diminished capacity and depression, partially manifested (not caused) by a change in eating habits from healthy foods to junk foods, including sugary foods. “Twinkies” weren’t even mentioned in the case. The phrase “Twinkies Defense” was coined by a writer. The jury acquitted Dan White of first degree murder, but convicted him of manslaughter. Dan White spent over 5 years in prison. Ethan Couch gets a free pass, actually a $450,000 pass, out of prison. The problem lies not so much with the lawyer, who was doing his job, but with a psychologist who would give credence to such a crackpot theory, and the Judge who accepted it. Affluenza proves the Golden Rule of Law: “One with the gold makes the law.” Juvenile Judge Jean Boyd reinforces Ethan’s impression that he can get away with it because he has money. She sentenced Couch to ten years of probation after he confessed to intoxication manslaughter. The prosecution sought 20 years in prison for the miscreant. Couch received not one day of prison time. Judge Boyd’s sentence rivals in infamy that of Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh in August who sentenced a teacher to 30 days in prison for the statutory rape of a 15 year old student, who committed suicide two years later. Alex Lemus, Sergio’s brother, responded to the sentence: “That kid killed four people and crippled my little brother and doesn’t even have to serve one year. If he were poor like us, he would’ve gotten 10 years, I bet.” Alex is right. Poverty is no defense to vehicular manslaughter. Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the tragedy said “There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to be absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country.” Richard Alpert, the prosecutor, predicted a future tragedy will follow upon the sentence: “There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here.” The law does not accept immorality or amorality as a defense. That’s exactly what the Affluenza Defense is. A spoiled rich kid cannot tell the difference between right and wrong; he is amoral, and thus should be excused from his crimes. Courts never accepted a spaced out Valley Girl defense, a space cadet defense, a village idiot defense, an ignorance of the law defense, or she looked legal and had a phony ID defense, poverty, illiteracy, English as a second language The purpose of the law is to protect victims and society against the wrongful acts of others. The law protects the victim rather than the wrongdoer. Sports stars and celebrities have certainly gotten away with murder and rape, but that's normally with a skillful defense attorney mesmerizing the jury. The concept that Affluenza could serve as a defense to murder, rape or bulgary is ludicrous,just as it is for vehicular manslaughter in the death of four innocent people and severe injuries to two others. Judge Boyd should be booted off the bench. Reagan Wynn, another defense attorney for Ethan Couch, said “If the point of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate these kids and make them productive members of society, then the judge did absolutely the right thing.” Sometimes you wonder if lawyers really believe what they’re saying. Eric Couch will be undergoing rehab in Newport Beach, California. Newport Beach, like Malibu, has several expensive, discreet rehab facilities to service the needs of the local residents. This one runs a little over $450,000 annually, which Ethan’s father, loving, doting father, will cover – as usual. $450,000 is a small price to pay to keep the ungrateful son out of prison, as daddy continues to indulge. The rehab center is not for the average person. It features equine therapy and organic meal options. Newport Beach is known for the spoiled high school students featured in “The O.C.” Eric will fit right in. If the parents do not set proper limits, then it is imperative for the state to do so. Judge Boyd failed the test. In the short term the civil courts may set the limits. Sergio’s family has filed a $20 million lawsuit against Ethan Couch and his father’s business, which is the registered owner of the F350 pickup truck. Lawyers are quick to pick up on successful tactics and arguments. Affluenza will now go viral through the defense bar until judges rein it in.

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