In June 2013, a drunken Ethan Couch, of Fort Worth, Texas, plowed his pickup truck into a group of people. Couch, 16 at the time, was driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone. His recklessness killed four people and paralyzed one.
During his trial, Couch’s prior brushes with the law painted an unflattering picture of a youth who always was able to buy his way out of trouble, thanks to the wealth generated by his father’s metal roofing company. Confronted with manslaughter charges, his lawyers offered a novel defense: The teen was suffering from “affluenza” — an affliction that befalls those who lack parental guidance and a sense of morality, yet still manage to operate from a position of privilege.
It was a risky maneuver that spared Couch jail time, though not conviction. To the outrage of those who knew and loved the victims, Couch was sentenced to a decade of probation and no incarceration. The judge ordered him to stay away from booze and out of trouble — or else face adult time in prison.
While the nation debated the merits of “affluenza,” the newly minted felon disappeared from public consciousness until last year when cellphone video showing him at a party where drinking was occurring turned up. Rather than face the music for violating probation, Couch and his mother fled to Mexico, where they donned disguises to evade the law.
They were caught in December and sent back to Texas. The felon, now 19, has been in custody ever since. Last week, District Judge Wayne Salvant sentenced Couch to jail for two years. He got 180 days for each of the four people he killed. Unless the judge reconsiders, the terms are to be served consecutively, making it far more time than what even the prosecutors originally asked for. Still, two years in jail for taking four lives, paralyzing a passenger and fleeing to Mexico falls far short of what Couch deserves.
Justice was delayed in Couch’s case, but it wasn’t completely denied. He will have years of enforced sobriety to think about his crimes and experience what it means to be held responsible for his own actions.
The above editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.