No Jail for 'Affluenza' Teen in Fatal DUI Crash

12:43 PM, Feb 6, 2014   |    comments
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By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY

In a case with growing political ripples, a Texas judge's reaffirmation placing a teen involved in a drunken-driving fatal accident on probation is drawing fresh outrage from the victims' families.

Ethan Couch, 17, will be on 10 years probation after Texas District Judge Jean Boyd again decided against jail time. He'll also be in a drug and rehab center for an unspecified time. His defense team used an "affluenza" defense at his trial last year, saying the then-16-year-old had grown up with a sense of entitlement and developed poor judgment after being coddled by his wealthy parents.

Prosecutors said Couch's blood-alcohol level was three times Texas legal limit when his pickup slammed into a group of people who were helping a woman with a stalled car last June. The driver, Breanna Mitchell, and bystanders Brian Jennings, Hollie Boyes and daughter Shelby, were killed. Nine others were injured.

According to police, Couch was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone when he lost control of his father's pickup and his blood alcohol content was 0.24. The state's legal limit for adults is 0.8.

Couch, who pleaded earlier to four counts of intoxication manslaughter, was back in court this week after prosecutors again sought a 20-year jail term related to the crash. But in a hearing closed to the media, Boyd reaffirmed her earlier sentence.

Two Texas gubernatorial candidates have spoken out in the case, while court observers and psychologists say the affluenza defense could be used in future cases involving juveniles, sending a dangerous message that could reinforce reckless behavior and poor judgment.

Couch had been cited earlier last year for being a minor in possession of alcohol and consuming alcohol as a minor, pleading no contest to both charges in a March hearing.

Victims' family members remain outraged.

"No matter where he goes ... no matter what game he and his family think they've beaten ... the world is not ever going to take their eyes off of him," said Marla Mitchell, Breanna's mother. "Let's let them know that no amount of money or prestige is ever going to grant them immunity for what they chose for their life that caused this for our lives."

Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the accident, said news media should have been allowed in the juvenile court hearing.

"If anything, the ability to tamp this down, keep this quiet, let this go away is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Absolutely this story has to go on,'' he said.

The case could be a hot-button political issue. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has called Boyd's decision a disgrace. And Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican contender, said he's trying to determine if Couch's sentence can be appealed.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who serves as president of the Senate, has already asked for a sentencing guideline study of intoxication manslaughter cases.

Contributing: WFAA-TV; Associated Press.

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