A wealthy teen who killed four people in a Texas drunk driving accident will not go to jail after a judge ruled this week that instead, he must attend an expensive rehabilitation facility paid for by his parents. The driver was 16-year-old Ethan Couch. He was speeding, with a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Couch has admitted to his crime, and in a case that went before a Texas judge, prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence. Instead, Couch was sentenced to 10 years’ probation after a psychologist claimed he had "affluenza," and testified that his cushy upbringing prevented him from connecting bad behavior with its consequences. We get response from Richard Alpert, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Couch. We are also joined by Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse University professor and the founder of "YourBlackWorld.net." He recently wrote an article titled "Rich, White Kids Have 'Affluenza,' Poor, Black Kids Go to Prison."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
911 DISPATCHER: And how many people need EMS?
CALLER: Ma’am, I’m telling you, it’s dark. There’s four or five kids. There’s kids laying in ditches and street.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a 911 call from last June, when four people were killed by a drunk driver. The driver was 16-year-old Ethan Couch. He was speeding, with a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Couch has admitted to his crime, and in a case that went before a Texas judge, prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years’ probation after a psychologist claimed he suffered from "affluenza," which he described as growing up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce. On Wednesday, a judge ordered him to go to an expensive rehabilitation facility paid for by his parents. This is CNN’s Anderson Cooper questioning the psychologist.
ANDERSON COOPER: A 14-year-old African-American child was sentenced by this same judge a year or two ago. This 14-year-old killed one person, punching him. That person fell and hit his head on the sidewalk and died. That African-American child got 10-year sentence, got sent to the juvenile justice facility. I mean, why should there be a separate system—
DICK MILLER: Well—
ANDERSON COOPER: —just because you have money?
DICK MILLER: I don’t think there is a separate system. This young man will be a ward of the state for 10 years, Anderson. Ten years—
ANDERSON COOPER: He’s on probation.
DICK MILLER: —that if he missteps any time, that judge can send him to the penitentiary.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was on Anderson Cooper’s—on CNN. Couch will reportedly be attending a rehab facility that costs $450,000 a year. Marla Mitchell, whose daughter Breanna was killed in the accident, spoke to reporters shortly after the ruling.
MARLA MITCHELL: No matter what game he or his family think they’ve beaten, the world is not ever going to take their eyes off from him. And they’re going to be waiting. They’re going to be waiting for him to mess up again, if he does.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Dallas, Texas, we’re joined by Richard Alpert, who prosecuted the case against Ethan Couch. He’s the Tarrant County assistant district attorney. In Chicago, we’re joined by Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse University professor, founder of YourBlackWorld.net, recently wrote a piece headlined "Rich, White Kids Have 'Affluenza,' Poor, Black Kids Go to Prison."
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to the prosecutor in the case, Richard Alpert. Can you lay out what happened in Wednesday’s hearing? How is it that affluenza is used to get Ethan Couch off? He killed not only four people, but critically injured others.
RICHARD ALPERT: Well, the Wednesday hearing was just a conclusion of the proceedings that started six weeks ago. The affluenza came out of the mouth of Dr. Miller, who was on the Anderson Cooper clip you just played. And basically, because—the defense position was, because he had this profoundly dysfunctional family, because they—he was a child of privilege, because his parents let him do what he wanted to do, that somehow he wasn’t responsible. It was the parents’ fault, not his fault, that this crime occurred. And it’s a contention that we found to be just ludicrous. It’s a contention that we confronted in the courtroom. We thought we did so effectively. And, you know, the judge obviously didn’t give the sentence we wanted to be given. We thought that pen time was appropriate for this young man.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And has this kind of defense been used previously?
RICHARD ALPERT: I’ve never heard of anyone claiming that the fact that a person has privilege or the person comes from money is something that entitles them to different consequences. I’ve never heard that before. Again, I mean, the phrase that was thrown out there, from what I’ve seen after the fact, it doesn’t even apply to this situation. It was never meant as a defense. And it just wasn’t credible. So, I think it’s a one-shot kind of situation. I don’t think that anyone is going to attempt to do this. And again, since the judge made the determination, we don’t know what factor she considered.
AMY GOODMAN: I was watching Alex Molina—Alex Lemus being interviewed. His younger brother, 16-year-old Sergio Molina, was in the car, as was Alex, with Ethan Couch, begging him to slow down. Sergio Molina is in—is minimally responsive now, and it has been a long time. He can hardly move. He doesn’t respond. This is—this is Alex Lemus talking about his brother.
ALEX LEMUS: They told us that basically that’s as much as he’s going to rehabilitate, that that’s—that’s all we can hope for, is how he is right now, for the rest of his life.
GARY TUCHMAN: His brother says he has quit his job to stay with Sergio all the time.
ALEX LEMUS: That’s my life. If I have to become a scientist to go up in there and fix him, that’s what I’m—that’s my life, man. That’s how much I love him.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Alex Lemus describing his brother’s condition right now. Alex went on to say, actually—he said not only does a rich white person get off, but they invent words that then people have to say, like "affluenza." Boyce Watkins, can you respond to this? You wrote a piece called "Rich, White Kids Have 'Affluenza,' Poor, Black Kids Go to Prison."
BOYCE WATKINS: You know, I can say that starting life as a poor black kid myself, you know, I find it actually quite interesting that his wealth can be a source of privilege and opportunity and an asset for him all throughout his life, but then, suddenly, that asset is contorted into a liability, which ultimately makes it into another asset. You know, I know guys who have gotten 40 years in prison for possession of one gram of crack cocaine. I had an older brother who went to prison at an early age, and it led him down a spiral of mental illness that stayed with him until he died.
I was personally offended by what this judge did. And I really think that this judge—particularly since this sentence was so inconsistent with previous sentences, particularly with African-American defendants, I think the judge should be investigated for corruption. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of link, financially or otherwise, or politically, that led to this outcome. I think everyone should be outraged, not just African Americans, but pretty much all of us, which I think is the case.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Boyce, Boyce Watkins, in terms of this becoming some kind of a precedent, in a new age here of a tale of two countries, really, that we have between rich and poor in America?
BOYCE WATKINS: Well, we already have a tale of two countries. I mean, America has really become addicted to capitalism, extreme capitalism. I’m a finance professor, and so I don’t hate capitalism, but at the same time, I know that capitalism is powerful, like fire or drug, which can either cook your food and keep you warm or burn you and your family alive. And ultimately in America, you see that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing more and more every year, and it’s really affecting our political and judicial systems.
Also, we have two tales here when it comes to race. The United Nations has repeatedly cited the United States for having a two-tier society when it comes to the educational system, the economic system and the criminal justice system. Everyone kind of knows about the joke except for us.
And so, when you talk about a kid like Ethan Couch, I’d say that the best cure for his affluenza would be prison. And I think most people know that. And I think we have to understand that this judge is just one judge who made a bad decision, but at the same time, it could be something that could be applied all across the country, because most studies show that disparate sentencing does exist between races and between people with different socioeconomic statuses.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse University professor, founded YourBlackWorld.net, wrote "Rich, White Kids Have 'Affluenza,' Poor, Black Kids Go to Prison." Thank you so much to Richard Alpert, Tarrant County assistant district attorney, one of the prosecutors in the affluenza case.