The 'affluenza' defense: lamest of the lame

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Ethan Couch had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit when he plowed his father's Ford F-350 pickup into four pedestrians on a June night near Fort Worth, Texas. At 16, Mr. Couch, who also had traces of Valium in his system, managed to kill four people on the side of the road while seriously injuring two of his seven passengers.

Several of Mr. Couch's friends fell out of the back of the pickup that had been traveling at 70 mph in a 40 mph zone when the drunk teenager ran over the victims and collided with their parked cars. Two of his friends were critically injured and one remains only minimally responsive to this day because of severe brain damage.

In the face of such carnage and his inescapable responsibility for a tragedy that was avoidable in every way, Mr. Couch pleaded guilty, thus avoiding a trial and the righteous wrath of a Texas jury. As the son of a wealthy business owner, Mr. Couch was represented by a lawyer who would earn every dollar he was paid during the sentencing phase.

Mr. Couch's lawyer enlisted a psychologist who testified that the hard-partying teenager was an unacknowledged victim of the accident, too.

He may not have been killed or injured during the crash that he caused, but Mr. Couch was a victim all the same, his lawyer asserted: Permissive parenting put him behind the wheel in the first place.

After all, Mr. Couch had been driving since he was 13 with his parents' blessings, further proof that he was the recipient of "freedoms no young person should have." The psychologist argued that because the teenager grew up in the bosom of materialistic excess without limits or boundaries, he doesn't understand that there are consequences for bad behavior.

Describing his client as "emotionally flat" from the weight of having never been denied anything in his young life, the psychologist said that with a couple years of therapy and court-mandated separation from his parents, Ethan Couch could evolve into something approximating a human being.

The psychologist then played his trump card -- Mr. Couch was suffering from a disease of the soul called "affluenza," a moral deficiency that afflicts those cursed with too much money and privilege. (To be sure, it is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

Judge Jean Boyd listened with a straight face as Mr. Couch's legal team argued that their defendant should be spared 20 years in prison that the state was pushing for because he was born into circumstances that stripped him of moral agency.

Without explaining the logic behind her decision, Judge Boyd sentenced Mr. Couch to a decade of probation and mental health treatment at a $450,000 a year rehabilitation facility in Newport Beach, Calif. Mr. Couch's wealthy parents will pay for it even while dealing with the inevitable blizzard of civil suits that will result from their son's recklessness.

Ironically, Mr. Couch probably would've served only a few years with good behavior had he been sentenced to prison instead of a decade of supervised therapy where a single infraction could put him behind bars for the full 20 years. He's going to have to learn self-discipline and the meaning of "no" in a hurry. Of course, those who knew and loved the victims are outraged by the judge's leniency. This was not the outcome people expected in Gov. Rick Perry's Texas.

Still, affluenza isn't such a novel concept when you think about it. The folks who nearly crashed the economy five years ago never have been held accountable for their acts of lawlessness. Wall Street is raking in record profits again, but the income gap between the rich and the rest of us has never been wider because there is no fear in the corporate suites of punishment from the Obama administration.

Even government bureaucrats are suffering from their version of the malady. On Monday, NBC reported on the audacious defense mounted for John C. Beale. He's a top Environmental Protection Agency official, an expert on climate change, charged with blowing off work for long stretches over a decade and falsely collecting nearly $1 million from the government. Mr. Beale told his colleagues that he couldn't show up for work because he was a "CIA spy" working deep cover in Pakistan. Mr. Beale will be sentenced tomorrow and could get 30 months in prison.

His lawyer is asking for leniency. Without claiming a specific syndrome, he said that his client's "grandiose narratives" were "fueled by his insecurities." He argued that therapy will help him recognize that "beyond the motive of greed, his theft and deception were animated by a highly self-destructive and dysfunctional need to engage in excessively reckless, risky behavior." That's just a polite way of saying his client isn't really the lying thief he appears to be.

It won't be long before lawyers will be arguing that there's a little affluenza in all of us.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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