On the night of June 15, 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch of Burleson, Texas and seven of his friends, ages 15-19, were out having fun. They wanted some alcohol and stopped by the local Walmart. Since none of them were old enough to buy any, a few of them proceeded to help themselves to two cases of beer.
While the teens were partying, 21-year-old Breanna Mitchell was heading home after a catering event. It was late and her tire blew out, causing her to careen into a ditch. Holly and Shelby Boyles, a mother and her adult daughter who lived nearby, saw the accident and walked over to help her. A few minutes later, Brian Jennings was driving by and stopped to offer assistance.
Breanna and the good samaritans were standing in a driveway at approximately 11:45 p.m. when Ethan Couch rounded a curve at approximately 70 miles per hour. His pickup truck slammed into them, killing all four. A chain reaction ensued, resulting in another 12 people being injured, including two children, and the passengers riding in the truck with Couch. One passenger, Sergio Molina, was thrown from the bed of the truck and is paralyzed, only able to respond by blinking his eyes.
At a hearing, an expert would testify that the scene looked like the site of an airplane crash – with bodies and body parts strewn for more than 60 yards along the road.
Charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter (his blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit, and there were traces of valium in his system) and two counts of intoxication assault, Couch admitted responsibility in juvenile court and chose to have state district Judge Jean Boyd sentence him.
Prosecutors chose try him as a juvenile and sought a “determinate sentence,” which would allow Couch to serve part of his sentence in a juvenile facility until he was 19 years old and then finish the rest of his sentence in an adult facility. They asked for a sentence of 20 years.
During the hearing, psychologist Gary Miller, who had been evaluating Ethan since the accident, told of Ethan’s life raised in a dysfunctional family by parents who left him to raise himself. He was used as a pawn in his parents’ divorce, and had the emotional age of a 12-year-old. Nothing was done, he says, when Ethan started driving at 13, or when he was found at 15-years-old with a passed out naked 14-year-old girl. He had complete freedom and no guidance, all a result of his parents’ dysfunction and wealth.
“This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller said. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”
Judge Boyd was moved by the testimony and sentenced Ethan to 10 years probation and to receive therapy at a long-term facility. Defense attorneys have stated that Ethan’s parents were willing to pay for his therapy at a facility that would keep him separated from them for two to three years.
The victims’ families are outraged at the sentencing. Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were the two that arrived to help Breanna when her car crashed, was overcome with emotion. “Money always seems to keep [Ethan] out of trouble,” Boyles said. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”
Mr. Boyles isn’t wrong.
In October of last year, a 14-year-old teen boy was riding with friends. For an unexplained reason, the boy jumped out of the car and randomly punched a 40-year-old man. The man fell and his head struck the pavement. He died two days later. In January of this year, the boy admitted to the crime of delinquent conduct/manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10 years in a juvenile detention center for one punch. The 14-year-old boy was also black. Ethan Couch is white.
It is unknown whether the public defender argued if the boy was a victim of bad parenting.
The mother of the punching victim remembers that Judge Boyle had also wanted to find a treatment facility for the 14-year-old. However, no facility would take him (and presumably he didn’t have parents who could pay for one). In the end, the judge sentenced him to a detention center, with a requirement that he undergo a rehabilitation program.
Juvenile detention, especially in Texas, isn’t known for its rehabilitation successes.
While the 14-year-old is serving his ten years, Ethan Couch is headed to a $36,000 a month facility in Newport Beach, California. Nestled in the hills of one of the wealthiest enclaves in Southern California, the Newport Academy touts a holistic approach to treating an array of issues for troubled teens. His rehabilitation will include horseback riding, yoga and art therapy. He is expected to be there for a year, with an additional year as an outpatient.
In addition to paying almost $500,000 for their son’s rehabilitation, his parents are facing five civil lawsuits from the families of the four killed and the teenager who is paralyzed. The lawsuits name Ethan Couch, and his father, Fred, as well as his father’s company Cleburne Metal Works. The truck Ethan was driving was registered to his father’s company.
It looks like money will be thrown at the family’s problems. Again.
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