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Commentary: The “Affluenza” Defense and Its Racial Disparity

Commentary: The “Affluenza” Defense and Its Racial Disparity

A Texas teenager who was sentenced to probation after driving while drunk and killing four people and injuring one is using the defense that his wealthy parents failed to teach him right from wrong.

Published December 17, 2013

A 16-year-old student in Texas, driving while drunk, killed four people and injured another in an accident and was sentenced to probation after defense lawyers argued that he was so spoiled by his wealthy parents that he didn’t have a clear perception of right and wrong.

For anyone in a working-class, African-American home, the thought of a young man being sentenced to 10 years of probation after causing the death of four people would be an unthinkable prospect. But Ethan Couch is white and his fate is a symbol of how race and class remain major factors in how justice is applied in the United States.

The white teenager had consumed alcohol and Valium, according to police, and lost control of his speeding Ford F-350 pickup. His father is the owner of a metal works company in the Fort Worth area.

Couch’s defense lawyers cited a condition that is gaining increasing popularity, called “affluenza.” It suggests a condition of irresponsibility brought on by growing up amid affluence. In the case of Couch, his lawyers argued, his wealthy parents spoiled him and failed to teach him right from wrong.

Contrast that with the case of the Central Park Five, a group of teenage African-American and Latino young men who were found guilty, after coercion by New York City Police officers, of raping a white woman in 1989. They spent up to 10 years in prison and were later found to be innocent of the crime.

That affluenza defense is symbolic of how far into the absurd American society had traveled in forgiving the excesses of the wealthy and privileged. It is as though the country not to mention the families of the victims is being told that behavioral choices are insignificant and that consequences simply don’t matter. It reinforces the old adage that in America it is better to be rich and white than poor and Black.

Speaking of the families, they have filed civil suits against the teenager, his family and his father’s business. In fact, the parents of the one victim who was paralyzed, Sergio Molina, are seeking $20 million.

Although his parents failed to teach him right from wrong, as the teenager’s lawyers insisted, it is doubly tragic that the court system failed to provide him with that education. They did a disservice not only to him but also to a system of justice, exposing again its ugliest blemishes.

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(Photo: Ben Noey Jr./The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP Photo) 

Written by Jonathan P. Hicks

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