By Michael F. Haverluck
A quiet but steady rumble of outrage is developing after it was reported the parents of a Texas teen who pleaded “affluenza” when he killed four people and injured nearly a dozen while driving drunk will pay only a fraction of what his rehabilitation will cost.
Much of it will be paid by taxpayers.
“As a taxpayer, I probably feel exactly like you do,” said Greg Koontz, an attorney for relatives of Brian Jennings, a 43-year-old youth pastor killed in the accident sparked by Ethan Couch’s driving.
His comment to the Star-Telegram came after Tarrant County Juvenile Services Placement Supervisor Debbie Spoontz announced Ethan’s parents would pay only $1,170 per month (five percent) of their son’s treatment, which costs $715 per day.
She said her state-run facility determined the amount to be paid based on a sliding scale after evaluating parents Fred and Tonya Couch.
“It seems like that ought to be a little different and should be addressed if there’s the ability to pay,” Koontz said, “Most time, I don’t know that there is. Clearly, sometimes that ability is there.”
Couch’s parents previously had volunteered to pay $450,000 a year for their son’s rehabilitation at a posh Newport Beach, Calif., facility. Instead, he was directed to the state facility costing $260,000 a year, of which they will contribute $14,040, officials said.
Ethan Couch was given probation and a spell in rehab, not jail, after a defense expert said the teen suffered from “affluenza,” a condition described as affecting children from wealthy families. Reports said it gives them a sense of entitlement, under which they make bad decisions.
Couch received 10 years of probation and avoided a 20-year jail sentence, along with almost entirely taxpayer-funded rehab at North Texas State Hospital, in the case.
At the time of the sentencing, petitions were launched, the judge was criticized and the judicial system blasted for allowing such a result.
State officials were unwilling to talk about the latest development.
When WND asked officials at North Texas State Hospital about the case, spokeswoman Christine Mann said, “Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot confirm that [Ethan Couch] is a patient, was a patient or will be a patient at one of our state hospitals.”
“Had he not had the money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different,” Eric Boyles told reporters after a hearing, according to the ABA Journal.
Boyle’s 52-year-old wife, Hollie, and 21-year-old daughter, Shelby, were struck and killed along with Jennings by Couch’s truck on the side of a Texas road when assisting 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell with a flat tire. Mitchell was also killed by Couch’s Ford F-350 truck, which he was driving 70 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone while he had Valium and three times the legal blood alcohol limit in his system.
According to trial notes posted by CNN, the teen driver was so confident that his wealth would get him out of trouble that he told one of his seven teenage passengers at the accident scene, “I’m Ethan Couch. I’ll get you out of this.”
Now, less than a year after the June 15, 2013, crash, it appears he has gotten out of it himself, with a spell in a state facility at mostly taxpayer expense even though his father, Fred Couch, owns Cleburne Sheet Metal, which takes in $15 million in yearly revenue.
The defense did not object to the arrangement.
“The family respects the decision of the facility and of the court and will honor the payment system that the court has put in place,” the attorney for Couch’s parents announced in a public statement following Friday’s hearing, according to the Star-Telegram. The minor turned 17 Friday and began treatment at North Texas State Hospital on February 19.
“Affluenza” comes from a merger of “affluent” and “influenza” and was used as the reason or cause of Ethan Couch’s destructive behavior by the defense’s expert witness, psychologist Dick Miller. He convinced Judge Dean Boyd that the teen was suffering with it because of his parents’ wealth and behaviors.
When WND asked North Texas State Hospital staff about its take on Miller’s “affluenza” diagnosis of Couch, it struck another wall of secrecy.
“Privacy laws preclude our being able to even acknowledge whether or not this person is in the hospital,” North Texas State Hospital Clinical Director of Psychiatric Services Tom Mareth, M.D., told WND.
One psychologist on the East Coast fears that the “affluenza” label will linger in hospitals and courtrooms for some time.
“Unfortunately, given the fact that this [affluenza defense] was successful, it’s more likely that more attorneys are going to pick it up and wave it as their banner,” psychologist Gary Buffone, who does family wealth advising in Jacksonville, Fla., told USA Today.
Experts in the field of law concur that cases like Couch’s pose an ongoing problem for America.
“The real truth is that our criminal justice system is suffering from ‘affluenza’ because affluent people can afford better attorneys and get better outcomes,” said Drexel University Law Professor Daniel Filler, who told USA Today that any savvy attorney could use this argument after the media attention of Couch’s case. He notes that the parents’ attorney was “doing what a well-paid lawyer can do.”
But even though the Couch’s attorney was able to dodge the bullet in the criminal action, one of the six families filing civil lawsuits against the family will not accept a legal settlement and is pressing for a jury trial in its quest for justice.
Todd Clement, the attorney representing 12-year-old Lucas McConnell, who crawled out of the window of Jennings’ flipped pickup truck covered in blood, reported that the probation and rehab sentence didn’t sit well with the now 13-year-old.
“Lucas sobbed all the way home and asked his family, ‘How can he kill all these people and not get in trouble?’” Clement shared at a news conference. The boy was helping his godfather return tables and chairs they had just broken down at his older brother’s graduation reception at a nearby church before Jennings pulled over roadside to assist the victim with a flat tire on her SUV.
Lucas’ father, Kevin, is of the same mindset.
“The horrific tragedy that happened that night on June 15 was not an accident,” he explained at a press conference. “It was the culmination of a series of bad decisions, destructive decisions and destructive actions on the part of Fred and Tonya and Ethan Couch and the management of Cleburne Sheet Metal in the days, weeks and months and even years leading up to that night.”
The other five families of the deceased and injured are receiving some kind of closure through reaching or nearing settlements in their civil suits. Settlement terms reached with Breanna Mitchell’s family were not released, while the sum the Jennings’ family will receive is also undisclosed.
Lawsuits also have been developed by teen passengers in Ethan Couch’s truck.