‘Affluenza’ defense saves teen killer from jail in Texas drink-drive case

It is the responsibility of any defense lawyer to present his client’s actions in the best possible light. Where there is no reasonable doubt about the means or opportunity in a particular case, the lawyer can present evidence about a possible motive – an underlying reason for the alleged crime – which may mitigate any sentence imposed by the judge. Although the law doesn’t always take motive into account as anything other than supporting evidence – it is background information rather than a way to prove intent – it can sometimes play a key role in trials such as those involving voluntary homicide and hate crime.

In a recent case in Texas, however, defense lawyers for 16-year-old Ethan Crouch came up with a new way to use motive as a way to appeal to the court. They told Judge Jean Boyd that Crouch was suffering from “affluenza” – a deficiency of conscience brought on by being too wealthy. Ethan’s parents, they claimed, had allowed their son to live such an easy and consequence-free lifestyle that he couldn’t be held fully responsible for a series of actions which destroyed the lives of several people.

On the night of June 15 this year, Crouch stole beer from a Walmart store and, while heavily under the influence of alcohol, jumped behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 pick-up. Shortly afterwards, he ploughed the truck into a stationary vehicle, killing four people – the vehicle’s driver, a passerby, and two locals who had come to help. Two teenagers riding in the bed of the truck were thrown clear in the collision and sustained injuries. One of the teens is paralysed and cannot talk.

Testimony revealed his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and Crouch admitted to causing the accident while drunk. He pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter by intoxication and two of assault causing bodily injury. Clearly, this was a serious offense and young Ethan faced up to 20 years in jail for his shocking error of judgement, plus fines of up to $10,000.

There was never any question that Crouch had the means and opportunity to commit the crime, but his lawyers successfully argued Ethan had diminished responsibility because his family life was too easy. Supported by psychologist G. Dick Miller, who agreed with the “affluenza” claims and told the court Crouch “lived such an extravagant, materialistic, consequence-free life that he was unable to understand or control his behaviour,” the unusual argument apparently won over the judge, who handed down 10 years probation rather than a jail term, with a recommendation for treatment instead of any punishment.

Dr. Miller has since said he regrets using the term “affluenza”, but claims his testimony was based on a belief that a lengthy period of detention wouldn’t have helped either Crouch or the state. Denying that the young man’s wealth helped sway his testimony, Miller told TV host Anderson Cooper on Dec. 12, “It had to do with what I thought was best for him and the state of Texas.”

A year ago, Judge Boyd sentenced a 14-year-old who inadvertently killed one person with a single punch to 10 years in a juvenile detention center. In this case the defendant was a poor African-American youth, and some commentators have seen this and Crouch’s sentence as yet another example of the endemic inequalities in America’s justice system.

Certainly, the terms of Crouch’s parole will not be easy for the young man to meet. If, as his lawyers insist, he is suffering from a disease caused by long years of ill-advised parenting, it may well be impossible for him to develop a conscience quick enough to avoid a jail term. If, however, he is little more than a thoughtless and immature young man – as many have suggested – he may find the conditions sobering in more ways than one.

Furthermore, if Crouch’s parents are responsible for their son’s appalling behaviour – as the court apparently believes – shouldn’t they serve the time instead? That’s a suggestion from the author who popularized the term in a widely seen 1997 documentary and in a book written four years later. The author, John de Graaf, points out that while the poor parenting defense might work for wealthy teens, it is unlikely to satisfy judges if the defendant is “an inner city kid.”

Critics of the decision have referred to it as another “Twinkie defense” with CNN branding it as little more than “spoiled rich-kid syndrome.” Although there are an incredible number of real and suspected mental disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s guidebook, the DSM, “affluenza” isn’t one of them. At least, not yet.