Video: Abbott looking into appealing the "affluenza" sentence

Texas Attorney General is already considered a heavy favorite to replace fellow Republican Rick Perry as governor in the 2014 election, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to just rest on his law-and-order laurels. Thanks to widespread public outrage over the slap on the wrist given to 16-year-old Ethan Couch after killing four people while driving drunk because of supposedly being too rich to be responsible for his actions, Abbott told the local CBS affiliate that his (current) office is looking into an appeal of the sentence — and legislative action to prevent this kind of defense in the future. And Abbott isn’t alone in the effort:


“Any time anyone is harmed in an accident, of course, there is tremendous sympathy for the victims and their family members and sorrow for the tragedy that happened. But then, to see the result in something like this is just outrageous,” said Abbott.

The Attorney General said his office is looking into the case to see whether the decision can be appealed.

“The fact that someone who injured others and killed others and escaped with such a light penalty is not what you typically see in Texas,” he said. “We want to visit with various different parties to see if there is an angle for the attorney general’s office to play a role.”

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office said neither Abbott nor his office has reached out to them, but that it is exploring its options in this case, as well.

Don’t get your hopes up, though:

It would be surprising if any grounds to either overturn the sentence or prosecute Couch on any additional charges were found, according to former U.S. attorney Richard Roper.

Roper said, now that the judge has ruled, the state of Texas will likely have to live with her ruling.

It may not be entirely hopeless, though.  Time Magazine featured an essay this weekend from the department chair of psychology at Stetson University, Christopher Ferguson, arguing that the “affluenza” phenomenon is not only “junk science,” the theoretical proposition for it has nothing to do with diminished capacity for criminal intent.  It’s a possible phenomenon relating to consumer behavior only:


Affluenza seems mainly the product of pop psychology, and it doesn’t even mean what Couch’s defense lawyers intended it to mean. It is generally characterized as a contagious social disease, typified by a “keeping up with the Joneses” materialism, spending and debt. According to Gregory McNeal in Forbesthe term affluenza is often used in tax and estate law, albeit even there with some skepticism. Given all of this, how affluenza came to be so influential in a criminal case is astounding. Our legal system has protections against using junk science in court decisions.  I have not read transcripts of the trial, but I would be surprised if prosecutors made no effort to challenge the use of affluenza in this case.

Couch may very well have mental health issues. Few psychologists would argue that being raised in an atmosphere of instant gratification and negligible consequences for bad behavior is healthy for child development. In addition, Couch’s risky behavior might indicate alcoholism and, if he truly were evidencing a pathological sense of entitlement or lack of empathy for others, it’s possible he might be diagnosable with a personality disorder. These are legitimate conditions, although they typically do not result in such a massive reduction in sentencing as was seen in this case. It is ironic that, in arguing Couch is a victim of bad parenting free of consequences for antisocial behavior, the defense and judge appear to have merely continued exactly this pattern, demanding unbelievably soft consequences for the death of four.


Even the author of the term “affluenza” pronounces himself “appalled” by its application, and invokes the same historical reference that immediately came to my mind when I heard about it, and asks the same question Allahpundit did last week:

Like most Americans, I was appalled by Ethan Couch decision. The “affluenza” plea seems about as serious as the famous “Twinkie defense” that Dan White used in his trial for killing Harvey Milk. And if Couch is not responsible for his actions, but rather a victim of poor parenting, then why shouldn’t his parents serve the time?

It seems clear that this decision is really special treatment for the rich, who often go unpunished for their misdeeds.  Imagine an inner city kid claiming he stole Nikes because he had “affluenza” and wasn’t taught responsibility by his parents. Not likely to work in a country where a homeless, freezing, Texas man spent months in prison for stealing blankets, or where Curtis Wilkerson got life in California for shoplifting a pair of socks.

Perhaps if the state can show that the sentencing was based on a false representation by the defense of what “affluenza” is and its standing in the psychology profession, an appeals court might be convinced to overturn the sentence and send the case back to the court for resentencing.  It’s probably still a long shot, but it’s worth the effort — both for justice and no small amount of good Texas politics.


Addendum: It’s worth noting that the “Twinkie defense” is actually misunderstood. The defense of Dan White in the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk didn’t argue that consumption of Twinkies produced a diminished capacity, but that White’s heavy consumption of junk foods (Twinkies were never mentioned) were one symptom among several others of his mental incapacity through clinical depression.

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