Rich white kid gets probation for killing four people; is the outrage justified?

By Alan Bean

Facebook is blowing up with righteous indignation over the case of Ethan Couch.  And you can’t blame people for being upset.  The kid was dead drunk and under the influence of prescription meds when his truck plowed into another vehicle, killing four innocent people.  Yesterday, a judge handed Ethan Couch ten years probation.  He won’t have to serve a day in jail.

But what really has folks riled up is the reason Mr. Couch caught a break.  Defense counsel argued that Ethan is the victim of “affluenza”.  His parents gave him everything he wanted and never forced him to live with the consequences of his decisions (this wasn’t Ethan’s first DWI).  Since you can’t put the parents on trial for bad parenting, why should their sins be visited on the child?

If the comments section following most news reports are anything to go by, Ethan Couch and his parents should have been drawn and quartered, their bodies burned and the ashes scattered to the four winds.  Consigning sinners to hell is above our pay grade, the reasoning goes, but we should be looking for the next best thing.

Other readers argue that if Ethan had been Black or Latino, or simply poor, he would be looking at decades behind bars.

Jim Schutze with the Dallas Observer agrees that the Couch boy should be looking at prison time, but he questions the logic of over-sentencing the rich kid simply because we are so terribly harsh on poor, minority kids.  Here’s the meat:

And, look, all that stuff about the “affluenza defense” offered by his lawyers — how his parents had failed to teach him right from wrong so it wasn’t his fault? You just have to toss that stuff in the verbal Dumpster as the kind of courtroom trash-talk that lawyers say when they have no conceivable real defense to offer. I heard the same thing once in a case in Florida where the lawyers said the defendant teenagers had been scarred by callous suburban culture. The judge blew it off as the “fear of lawnmowers” defense.

Everybody knows it’s junk. The real defense is: “This kid’s parents can afford a very expensive whiskey school for him, so why toss him onto the human trash heap of a brutal state prison system? Maybe he can be saved by the whiskey doctors. Why not try?”

I know what the answer is. You should dump him onto the trash heap, because you dump everybody else’s kid on the trash heap. And as one of the loved one’s of the dead said on TV last night, “At some point there has to be justice.”

I get all that. I believe all that. I’m just not convinced that justice is what we have to offer. And if I put myself in the shoes of Ethan Couch’s parents, then, yes, I’m going to do whatever I can to keep him out. Maybe what the rest of us need to do is work to provide a more dignified and decent system of punishment for all kids.

It doesn’t take much experience with the criminal justice system to realize that Americans get all the justice they can pay for.  A few days ago, I told you about Kareem Serageldin, a former top executive with Credit Suisse, who got 2.5 years for contributing to the mortgage meltdown of 2008.  The judge cut the Wall Street swindler some slack because “He was in a place where there was a climate for him to do what he did.  It was a small piece of an overall evil climate inside that bank and many other banks.”

Actually, two or three years in prison might be a reasonable sentence for a white collar criminal, but as I pointed out in my post, when we’re throwing young black males away for twenty, thirty or seventy years for non-violent narcotics offenses, something is seriously out of balance.

If the Credit Suisse hot-shot hadn’t been named “Kareem” he might have sidestepped prison altogether.

And then there is the case of Ken Anderson, the corrupt Williamson County prosecutor who put an innocent Michael Morton in prison for a quarter century by withholding exculpatory evidence.  Anderson resigned his position in September and, two months later, was sentenced to ten days in prison and 500 hours of community service.  In addition, Judge Kelly Moore found Anderson in contempt of court for withholding evidence.

Ken Anderson at his sentencing hearing

“This seems like paltry punishment for having ruined another man’s life,” a Dallas Morning News editorial observed.

But what would be adequate? The best judge in this situation is Morton himself, who has long insisted that he sought justice and accountability — not vengeance — for what Anderson and his cohort did.

Morton was present in Moore’s courtroom Friday. “It’s a good day,” he stated. “I said the only thing that I wanted, as a baseline, is Ken Anderson to be off the bench and no longer practicing law. And both of those things have happened and more.”

Michael Morton is an exceptional man. He didn’t want anyone else victimized by a reckless and amoral prosecutor, he wasn’t out for revenge.  That’s admirable.

But Judge Moore may have granted Anderson a modicum of mercy for the same reason Mr. Couch and Mr. Serageldin dodged bullets.  We must remember that Anderson served in Williamson County, possibly the most tough-on-crime county in the great state of Texas.  He was part of a punitive community spirit and maybe he shouldn’t be blamed for being corrupted by it.  Prosecutors generally reflect the values of the electorate.

This may surprise you, but I find some merit in this argument.  Our virtues and our sins often say more, for better or worse, about our environment than about us.  That’s why conservatives talk so much about moral values–they make a difference.

The problem is that these “bad environment” arguments only seem persuasive when we’re discussing white sons and daughters of privilege.  If the defendant is a young black male, we respond in fear.  That’s why most white people (not all, mercifully) worked so hard to believe that Trayvon Martin was a punk; it enabled them to see his death as just deserts.

One thing is certain, treating wealthy white people with the same contempt and disregard poor minority defendants generally receive from the justice system accomplishes nothing.  To paraphrase Mr. Schutze: Maybe what the rest of us need to do is work to provide a more dignified and decent system of punishment for all Americans.

2 thoughts on “Rich white kid gets probation for killing four people; is the outrage justified?

  1. I think this is a wonderful article. I was pondering the matter this morning, reading the letters to the editor in the newspaper. I couldn’t get my mind around what should be happening. Now I get it. We should be sending all these kids to rehab. And we should be financing rehab.
    In 1950 I attended a sociology class in what was then termed “juvenile delinquency”. The first statement made by the instructor was: “None of your children are going to Juvenile facilities (then Boys Vocational School).
    We all gaped.
    Of course. We were all middle class. And it was a true prediction.
    Years later, my son was picked up with two other kids stripping cars. The other two, lower class kids, were sent to Boys Vocational School. My son was sentenced to counseling. The judge said that my son came from “a good family”.

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