“Affluenza” Part II: All the Justice Your Money Can Buy
Back in December, my friend and fellow Rhino Den writer RU Twisted wrote a brilliant and timely article on something called “affluenza,” which he explained as “an ‘affliction’ that stems from having such an easy and extravagant lifestyle that the (afflicted) person doesn’t have the same control over their actions that normal people do.” The article featured a Texas case in which a privileged teenager “afflicted” with the “disease” of affluenza skated away from a drunk-driving and vehicular manslaughter conviction with probation and a taxpayer-assisted trip to rehab after killing four people and putting two more in the hospital with crippling injuries. Based on the moral outrage expressed throughout the country in reaction to this case, I thought (hoped?) that the Texas case would be the last we’d hear of the pseudo-disease affluenza and the pseudo-science behind it. But instead of inoculating America against the rationalizations that the wealthy and powerful use to excuse their bad behavior, recent cases involving affluent malefactors made it obvious that something is indeed running rampant inside the US justice system. More and more these days it looks like you can still have justice in America…
…all the justice your money can buy.
Texas teenager Ethan Couch was a ticking time bomb. Habitually over-indulged and under-supervised by his wealthy parents, the 16-year-old finally exploded in a drunk-driving incident that killed four innocent people and inflicted life-altering injuries on two others. This was a tragedy by any definition, but the greatest tragedy of all was the sentence handed down after Couch’s trial and subsequent conviction in juvenile court: rehab, plus probation.
On June 13, 2013, Couch and some friends stole beer from a local Wal-Mart, and Couch consumed so much of it that even three hours after the crash he caused, he still had a blood alcohol content of 0.24. If you’re keeping score, that is three times higher than the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle, inside the body of a young man who won’t be able to legally drink at all for another five years. He was also high on Valium and recklessly operating a vehicle overloaded with seven passengers, including at least two in the open bed of his pickup truck, at a speed at least 30 MPH over the posted limit of 40 MPH.
Predictably, the worst happened. The drunk, high, and distracted teenager ultimately careened into a group of people who had stopped to help a stranded motorist. The motorist and three Good Samaritans were killed. Two of Couch’s passengers were ejected and suffered critical injuries, including one who can no longer move or speak due to brain injuries and can communicate only by blinking. Couch, of course, escaped relatively unharmed.
There is plenty of blame to go around for what happened on that night, but ultimately, Couch himself is responsible. Only, he’s not responsible. At least not according to Texas judge Jean Boyd who sentenced Couch to the whopping sentence of… full-time rehab and ten years of probation. That’s right: for choosing to steal beer, get drunk and then get behind the wheel, a decision which led to the deaths of four people, the repeat-offender perpetrator got off with a sentence of REHAB. Judge Boyd said Ethan Couch had “…freedoms that no young man would be able to handle,” so it was impossible to find him liable for his own actions.
During trial, a defense witness helped present a case for “affluenza,” a made-up disease that apparently results from having too much money and too few boundaries. Under cover of this psycho-babble, Ethan Couch was no longer a perpetrator of a crime, he instead became a victim of a disease. And the cure for the “disease” of affluenza is apparently rehab, not prison. So to atone for wrecking the lives of more than a half-dozen people and their families, Ethan Couch will reportedly spend some time in a pristine rehab center where he gets to ride horses and take swim classes, under conditions that require no minimum amount of rehab that Couch has to undergo before he’s released. And oh yeah, the open-ended, resort-area rehab is being paid for largely at taxpayer expense.
So is this justice? Well, maybe that’s just how they roll in Texas: probation for teenage drunk drivers who murder innocent people… only, that’s NOT how Texas does things. At least not for the average criminal. This site shows the prison sentences that resulted from the drunk driving convictions of a number of Texas teenagers, including 16-year-old Jaime Arrellano (who, unlike Couch, was properly charged as an adult not a juvenile). Arrellano “only” killed one person, a pregnant woman, yet received an appropriate sentence of 20 years in prison. 20 years for one 16-year-old for killing one person; zero years for another who killed FOUR and critically injured two. Two very similar cases, two very different results. Maybe if Arrellano would have been the scion of a wealthy family and not an illegal immigrant, he could have gotten away with rehab, too.
In an example of the old adage “the apple never falls far from the tree,” running afoul of the law seems to be a bit of a tradition in the Couch family. Ethan himself had earlier alcohol-related citations, his father was charged with theft, evading arrest, and assault, and his mother got busted for reckless driving. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, neither of the parents served any jail time either. It must be good to be rich. Or maybe they just had “affluenza” too. Either way, their criminal past did not stop the Couch family from creating a multi-million dollar business enterprise that provided the means, motive, and opportunity for the entire clan to engage in affluenza-influenced behavior at will.
So, to sum up: a repeat-offender douchebag juvenile delinquent killed four innocent people and critically injured two others, and some douchebag Texas judge let him get away with it because the douchebag delinquent’s douchebag parents have money. Awesome. The message is clear: consequences are markedly less, or even non-existent, if you come from a wealthy family. Is this justice in today’s America?
One outlier case does not make a trend, so let’s look at another example. In 2009, Robert H. Richards was convicted of raping his three-year-old daughter by digitally penetrating her while he masturbated. Classy. Why bring this four-year-old case up now? It came to light again just last week when it was revealed that Richards had been recently investigated for abusing his infant son as well. So, to sum up this happy tale: Robert H. Richards IV was convicted of raping his toddler daughter and was subsequently investigated for sexually abusing his infant son. Pretty bad stuff, right? Probably calls for some heavy jail time?
Well, it would if the man in question were any normal US citizen. But Robert H. Richards IV is no ordinary citizen. Don’t recognize his name? How about the name DuPont? Yes, THAT DuPont. Richards is one of the heirs of the DuPont family fortune, which allows him to maintain the lavish lifestyle of an unemployed playboy and to live in a $1.8 million… and apparently to rape small children with impunity.
So, how many years did DuPont heir Robert Richards receive for raping his own daughter? None. He got probation. Let’s pause and reflect on that one for a moment. This guy RAPED his own daughter. His 3-year-old daughter. He wasn’t just accused of this, he pled guilty to a lesser charge and was convicted of it. And all he got was probation. Why did he get probation in a case that would have landed most Americans not only in, but probably under the nearest penitentiary? Well, at this point we all know it was because of his wealth. But what was the excuse for leniency given by the judge in the case, Jan Jurden? Richards would not “fare well in prison.”
Wait, what? OF COURSE he won’t “fare well in prison.” It’s PRISON, people are not supposed to “fare well” there. Besides, what does that even mean? With his family’s wealth and clear political influence, he would be able to buy his way into a nice, cushy Club Fed pen. He won’t be with the plebes and the riff-raff in a local pound-you-in-the-ass prison. Moreover, Richards is no shrinking violet. He’s listed in court records as 6’4” and 250+ pounds. That’s a BIG guy, more than big enough to handle himself in lockup. Yes, I realize that wealthy inmates and persons convicted of sexual crimes are often looked down upon and targeted by other inmates. But maybe they shouldn’t commit those kinds of crimes in the first place.
Like RU Twisted correctly pointed out in his initial article, the whole concept of “affluenza” is complete and utter bullshit. If we accept, if only for a moment, that “affluenza” really is a disease, wouldn’t the cure be pretty simple? Throw the perpetrators in jail, and fine the crap out of them. Take ALL of their money. “Affluence” gone, “affluenza” cured. Problem solved, problem staying solved. The fatal flaw in that logic is, unfortunately, that this suggestion would never work. The system is stacked so far in favor of the wealthy that the average citizen, and more importantly the average victim, never stands a chance. Our nations’ growing trend to treat criminals as victims and to look out for their interests over the interests of the country and more importantly the interests of victims, do not bode well for our future as a nation of, by, and for the people.