Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Affluenza vs ‘povertitis’ (Part 1)

Published:Monday | January 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Tonya Couch appears at court in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, January 8, 2016. The mother of Ethan Couch, who used an 'affluenza' defence after killing four people in a drunken-driving wreck, faces a charge of hindering the apprehension of a felon.

On the night of June 15, 2013, circumstances led four local residents and church friends of a Texas neighbourhood to congregate on the sidewalk of their quiet middle-class residential community. Not far away, 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who is from a very affluent family and allowed to spend extended periods of time unsupervised in a 4,000-square-foot ranch house, had been drinking alcohol heavily with his friends. He decided to drive one of them to the convenience store.

Couch was so drunk that he barrelled down that residential street in his souped-up pickup at about 70mph (110kph). He played 'chicken' with oncoming traffic, eventually lost control, ploughed into the four people standing on the sidewalk and destroyed three parked vehicles.

Youth pastor Brian Jennings, mother and daughter Hollie and Shelby Boyles, respectively, and 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell were killed. Nine other people were injured, and one of them was left paralysed. His pickup rolled over and ended up in a ditch. With only a scratch, he crawled out of the wreck and walked a quarter-mile away from the scene. Debris was strewn over a distance of about two city blocks. Up to three hours after the crash, his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

The Couch family hired a team of high-powered attorneys and a top-notch psychologist. Couch was charged with four counts of intoxicated manslaughter and two counts of intoxicated assault. The prosecution asked for 20 years. However, he pleaded guilty to all counts, so there was no trial. It went straight to the sentencing hearing.




The defence team proffered that Couch was a victim of wealth. Interesting quotes arose out of the matter. "Ethan learned that you must be able to do what you want, when you want to do it". "Instead of the golden rule, Ethan learned that we have the gold; we make the rules."

He was driving around the neighbourhood since he was 13 years old. He was allowed to live alone intermittently. He had a history of heavy alcohol and illegal drug use, and he had been stopped for drunk driving three times before that crash.

The psychologist on the expensive powerhouse team said that because of his family wealth, Couch suffered from affluenza. He referred to him as a child of privilege and that his parents didn't say 'no' to him. Being raised as a rich kid, he didn't know the difference between right and wrong. He recommended treatment instead of incarceration. Shockingly, the trial judge agreed!

The word 'affluenza' was first used in 1973. There was a TV documentary about it on Sept-ember 15, 1997, and a dramatic movie about it was released on July 11, 2014. In the Couch context, affluenza is "the unhealthy and unwelcome psych-ological and social effects of affluence, regarded especially as a widespread societal problem".

If Couch had not been wealthy, he could not have afforded such a powerful defence team, and he could not have pleaded guilty to killing four innocent people, permanently crippling one and injuring yet another eight, and explained it away with affluenza. The wealth that saved him from 20 years behind bars caused this in the first place. And, conversely, the wealth that caused this in the first place saved him from 20 years behind bars.

The entire judicial abomination was recently resurrected when Couch, now 18, violated the terms of his probation. He was caught on video in the company of fellows involved in a game with alcohol. It went viral; he absconded with his mom (who is now divorced from his dad) to Mexico; they were apprehended; she was extradited; he is fighting extradition; and she will serve time for the third-degree felony charge of assisting a felon, thereby hindering his apprehension. He may do a little time when eventually extradited.

I'm not encouraging any form of criminality, but justice doesn't seem to be blind to wealth, power, popularity, and status. Should there be a converse mitigating plea of 'povertitis'? Next week ... .

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and