April 17, 2014


Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Affluenza Defence

Ethan Counch in a Texan court in December of last year.
By Gabriela Esquivada
For The Herald in US

‘Being rich gets you off the hook’

NEW YORK — It is on everyone’s lips. Even if the word-processor grammar checker insists on underlining the word in red: affluenza does not exist in the dictionary.

But it is at the centre of a national controversy in the United States. Popular television and radio shows, papers and websites, and the most active social media are roaring with opinions about what is called The Affluenza Defence.

On June 15th a rich teenager from Texas, Ethan Couch, drove his father’s Ford F-350 with seven friends to a Wal-Mart, stole two cases of beer, mixed it with Valium, raced at 112km per hour in a 65 km/hr road and lost control of the vehicle at the curve of Burleson Retta Road, in a suburb of Fort Worth. The four tons of the pickup truck crushed Breanna Mitchell, 24, whose car, an old Mercury Mountaineer, was parked off the road with a flat tyre; a mother and daughter who lived nearby and were helping her, Hollie Boyles, 52, and Shelby Boyles, 21; and a youth minister, Brian Jennings, 41, a passer-by who stopped to offer assistance. Two of the teenagers in the car flew out of the windows; one of them, Sergio Molina, is paralyzed and can only communicate by blinking one eye.

Ethan Couch’s blood alcohol level was 0.24, three times the limit for adults; Texans under 21 years old with driver licences are not allowed to drink at all. Let alone to enhance their booze with psychoactive drugs.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon requested the maximum of 20 years in juvenile hall, with the possibility of parole in two years since the killer of four is a 16-year-old minor.

But on December 12th the state District Judge Jean Boyd ruled that the teenager did not need punishment but rehabilitation instead: 10 years of probation and one—at least — of treatment.

That might be a bitter pill to swallow for the relatives of the dead, but perhaps would show that the justice system worries about the high rate of incarceration in the United States. And that Judge Boyd considers that a minor who has broken the law has more chances of becoming a functional member of society if he receives care instead of a stigmatizing punishment.

Judge Boyd is not that kind of judge. She has thrown the book at several other respondents. Black, “Hispanic” teenagers. Poor teenagers.

But she seems open to innovative arguments such as that of the affluence pathology put forward by Scott Brown, Couch’s lead defence attorney.

Brown called an expert witness, psychologist G. Dick Miller, PhD, who made a pitch about Ethan being a victim of a privileged upbringing in a home torn by arguments about divorce terms. Mr. Fred Couch “does not have relationships, he takes hostages,” said Miller to the court; Mrs. Tonya Couch could not set limits to her child: “Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it.” The doctor added: “The teen never learned to say that you are sorry. If you hurt someone, you send them money.” He described the condition as affluenza: reckless behaviour provoked by wealth. The parents gave Ethan “freedoms no young person should have,” like driving at 13 or paying his way off the trouble he might have faced when at 15 he was discovered in a car, drunk again, with an unconscious, naked girl of 14 in the passenger’s seat.

“Ethan, you are responsible for what you did, not your parents,” the judge told Couch. Then she regretted that the programmes available in the Texas juvenile justice system cannot provide the intensive therapy he needs, so he must commit himself into an exclusive, US$450,000 a year centre at Newport Beach, in California (suggested by the defence attorneys, paid by the family), where treatment includes horse-riding, cooking classes (with organic ingredients), martial arts practices and—as rewards for progress — beach and TV hours.

Nine years ago, the same judge had said something very different when sentencing Eric Miller, then another troubled 16-year-old who lived with his grandfather because he had no father and his mother was completely absorbed by addiction. Miller had asked for US$10 from his grandfather to rent a movie, but instead bought a bottle of vodka, got drunk, stole a pickup that had been left with the engine on, and drove away only to crash into the car of Philip Andress, a young man who would not be present for his newborn son’s first birthday.

“The court is aware you had a sad childhood, but you are fortunate to have a grandfather who is so committed and loves you,” said Boyd when sentencing Miller to 20 years behind bars, with the possibility of parole in three. “I hope you will take advantage of the services (of state custody] and turn your life around.”

Eric Boyles, the husband and father of two of the fatal victims, faced Couch: “Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail.”

symptom of affluenza

Perhaps as another symptom of affluenza, the respondent, taught to send money instead of expressing regret, did not apologize. Money might be sent at some point. After the sentence, five civil lawsuits were filed against Couch, his father and his company, Cleburne Metal Works, owner of the pickup. The relatives of the dead are suing for damages. The parents of Molina request US$20 million: the medical expenses of the paralyzed teenager have already reached US$600,000 and might get to US$10 million.

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wants a state Senate committee study of the sentences for intoxication manslaughter cases. “Having lost my own father to a drunk driver in my youth, I have a particular interest in this issue,” Dewhurst said. He is not against probation, but would like to make sure that sentences “include appropriate punishment levels.”

The prosecutor Richard Alpert was irate: “There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here.” The county District Attorney’s office is attempting for a second time to imprison Couch arguing that of the six charges he confessed to, two counts of intoxication assault have not been taken into account in the court decision.

growing poor

The social uproar has focused on the word affluenza and its idea of privilege. In a nation founded on grounds of egalitarianism and shaped by meritocracy, privilege has become a visible threat, and the affluenza defence is the symbol of what the growing poor and the stressed middle-class have been living since the 2008 crisis. Also a sign of the racism that still pervades society: black and “Hispanic,” poorer that Anglo whites, represent 39.4 percent and 20.6 percent of inmates, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The controversy filled traditional and social media: “I have discussed the idea of inequality within our justice system. It rewards the wealthy and their high-powered attorneys while viciously locking up the poor and powerless”, asserted Rev. Al Sharpton in The Huffington Post.

“(Affluenza) is not a recognized disorder but it is not a fiction. Few would dispute that millions of affluent—typically white—Americans choose to live in communities whose primary raison d’être is to afford their residents a pampered escape,” wrote James McAuley for The New York Times.

Anderson Cooper asked Dr. Miller: “Are you saying he didn’t murder—he didn’t kill four people?” The psychologist picked up the mistake: “He did not murder four people. It’s a legal term.” The anchorman reformulated: “He killed four people, yes?” “Four people died,” Miller said. Cooper, about to go overboard, insisted: “Four people didn’t just magically die. He slammed his vehicle into four people. Correct?”

In Facebook, May HemTeXas asked: “Where did this psychologist get his education and degree from? I guess the same university that the judge got hers from”. And Stephanie Wills compared: “If being rich can cause that, I’m pretty sure poverty does as well. How about the argument of, ‘Well, I’ve grown up around crime my whole life so I thought it was natural?’.”

Twitter was the network of choice to coin other exculpatory terms, among them Povertenza, Blackpox, Povertism, Negrobetes, Brokeitis.

The word has an origin and meaning quite different of this one that evokes the attorney of Breaking Bad: “From parking tickets to mass murder, Saul Goodman and Associates is your one stop shop for all your legal needs.” In 1997 Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter of former president of General Motors Charles Erwin Wilson, published The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, an analysis of the rich and the poor who live just to chase, or maintain, wealth. She described affluenza as the pathological pursue of the material, which obliterates love, personal realization and even appreciation of life. PBS aired two documentaries, Affluenza (1997) and Escape from Affluenza (1998), both linked to John de Graaf books Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, and Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us—and How to Fight Back. Similar publications followed looking into the price of consumerism. But this is the first time the term is employed, and accepted, in a courthouse in a case that left four people dead.

The last words of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag have gone viral: “and justice for all.”

But perhaps there is another quote that may shed some light on this case: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”

Those words belong to The Rich Boy, a short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald — an early expert, and victim, of affluenza — wrote in Capri and corrected in Paris, and published in in 1926.

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