Justice Is Not Blind To Wealth

ImageWhat do you think the punishment should be for killing four innocent people?  In the court system of Texas, it’s apparently only 10 years probation.  The 16 year old Ethan Couch appeared in court for ending the lives of four people in a car accident at his own hand.  One might be inclined to argue that Couch was simply a young, inept driver, and that the accident was not his fault, but rather just that, an unfortunate accident.  The fact that he had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit and was high on Valium at the time presents a much more serious offense than mere ineptitude.

So what is the usual punishment for killing others in a drunk driving accident?  In one San Antonio case, a man ended up with murder charges for driving under the influence (with a blood alcohol content of .17) and ending up in a crash which killed his wife. In fact, Texas in general has been cracking down on drunk driving recently.  Those who drive while under the influence and get into a fatal crash have had their charges changed “from intoxication manslaughter to murder” (Xavier, DUI DWI Foundation).    Another example of this is Frances Rosalez, who drove the wrong way on a highway while under the influence which ended with the death of 38 year old Lawrence Belcher.  Rosalez became the first to have her intoxication-manslaughter charge changed to a murder charge, but certainly was not the last.


Yet Ethan Couch certainly did not receive any murder charges, even in spite of the fact that his crash killed four people rather than just the one in the other cases.  Additionally, Couch’s blood alcohol content, at three times the .08 limit, was in great excess of the San Antonio man’s who received a murder charge, not to mention the Valium he was on.  While Couch escaped a 20 year sentence in prison, he was of course tried in juvenile court, rather than adult court.  In Arkansas, 14 year old Kuntrell Jackson was given a life sentence without parole for his role in the murder of a video store clerk.  Yet Jackson was not the one to fire a gun, but was simply part of the group robbing the video store.  Why did Jackson receive such a harsh punishment while Couch did not?  The most immediate thought by many is that it is an issue of race.  Dr. Boyce Watkins intones that “Black teens, however, aren’t nearly as lucky when they come before the courts.”  He draws a parallel between the races of the two perpetrators, and the disproportionate punishments they each received.


However, this commentary seems to stop at surface-level argumentation.  After all, Couch’s crime was not perpetrated with a weapon designed to kill (a gun), but rather was committed through an otherwise innocuous part of our lives (driving a car).  This lightens the sentence, as it shows a lack of intent to kill, that it was an accident deserving less punishment.  It then becomes clear that the comparison of Couch to Kuntrell Jackson is not fair, as the situations surrounding their crimes are different.  This fact undermines the argument of Watkins, that race is the primary motivating factor in Couch’s low level of punishment.


What does seem to be a point of valid contention is the legal defense used to defend couch.  Couch’s psychologist, Dick Miller, argued that Couch suffered from “Affluenza”.  In essence, his argument is that Couch’s upbringing of lax parenting and unchecked freedom and money resulted in his inability to properly judge the situation (driving while drunk and high) as dangerous.  This affliction is not officially recognized by the American Psychological Association.  In fact, it has even been deemed “junk science” by other psychologists.  


Not only does this Affluenza defense have no basis in reality, but it is particularly galling due to what it is really saying.  I have no trouble believing Couch’s upbringing led to his poor judgement in this case.  This is not, however, a defense for the results of his actions.  It has been clearly shown in the past that one’s upbringing or home life is not a factor in determining blame.  After all, in the Evan Miller case, he was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 14 just like Kuntrell Jackson.  His lawyers argued that his abusive home life was a reason to lessen his charges, but he still received a life sentence without parole at the age of 14.


 Proposing that Couch’s upbringing was too privileged seems insulting at best.  In the most baldfaced way it presents America’s problem of going easy on the rich and punishing the poor more harshly.  Having money and privilege becomes not only a benefit in itself, but also something to fall back on if you make poor decisions.  Not only does the Affluenza defense not have legal ground, but it is a “miscarriage of justice” according to Al Sharpton of Huffington Post.  Sharpton highlights the fact that Couch will be attending rehabilitation at a $450,000/year facility.  If Couch’s judgement was so negatively impacted by his privileged upbringing, why is he being allowed to continue living this life of privilege?  I feel Couch would have had his judgement improved by the proposed 20 year jail sentence, rather than by living a life of luxury at an exorbitantly expensive rehabilitation center.

Christopher Ferguson of Time Ideas says, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that money and privilege did indeed influence this case, but not through a psychological illness.  Instead, the judge managed to convey the impression that the wealthy are able to buy a different justice from the poor.”  I must agree with Ferguson, who also brings up the fact that even if Couch had a legitimate and feasible condition such as a personality disorder, as a result of his upbringing, it would not result in such a massive reduction in his criminal sentence.  The only factor left that could influence this case is money.  In an obvious sense, money was Couch’s defense, but it also plays into the commonplace idea that the rich are let off more easily than the poor.


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