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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The ‘Affluenza’ Defense

Ethan Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years probation after admitting to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people and injured several others. (Screenshot from WFAA-TV video)

Ethan Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years probation after admitting to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people and injured several others. (Screenshot from WFAA-TV video)

On Tuesday, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office announced that it is seeking additional charges against 16-year-old Ethan Couch.

There has been widespread public outrage that Couch did not receive any jail time after he admitted to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people. A judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation and a year of in-patient treatment at a California rehab center that costs $450,000 per year — to be paid by his parents.

At his trial, Couch’s lawyers argued he was afflicted by a condition called “affluenza.” The defense team argued that because Couch was brought up in an environment of considerable wealth and privilege, in which his parents did not place limits on his behavior, he did not know that his actions had consequences.

The term “affluenza” was popularized in a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name that described a social condition. John de Graaf was a co-producer of the documentary, and describes being “appalled” by the judge’s sentence in the case. In an op-ed in Time magazine, de Graaf wrote:

“We defined [affluenza] as a ‘painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.’

Ours was social criticism, not psychiatry. We laid bare the ugly consequences—both social and environmental—of America’s obsession with wealth and materialism.”

De Graaf joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to discuss “affluenza” and its use as a legal defense.

Interview Highlights: John de Graaf

Did Ethan Couch have affluenza?

“I think most Americans have it to one degree or another. You can’t help it, living in a society that tells you that the American Dream is to get as wealthy as you can, to make as much as you can, and really to blind yourself to consequences. Really for 30 years in this society, we’ve allowed ourselves to do things which have consistently benefited the top 1 percent or 2 percent while punishing others. We’re cutting food stamps as a society, while we refuse to tax at any higher rate the millionaires in our society. So I think yes, Ethan Couch did have affluenza in that sense. I don’t think, though, it’s a defense for the behavior he committed.”

“You can’t imagine a poor kid getting off because they said, ‘I stole those Nikes because I had affluenza; I was influenced that I had to have all this stuff, and there was no consequences for it.’ I mean, we would lock him up.”

On a different measure of fulfillment

“Having more and more stuff doesn’t make us happier. What makes us happier is social connection, it’s giving to others, it’s altruism, it’s having a good environment, it’s having access to the outdoors. These are the kinds of things that we are, in fact, undercutting in our relentless pursuit of wealth. So we need to have that conversation as a country. And we need to say, ‘Hey, maybe we should stop making the whole goal of everything we do increasing economic growth and instead we should be thinking about something like gross national happiness.’”


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  • Mike

    The affluenza defense says the parents didn’t teach their kids right and wrong. Well, shouldn’t the parents be charged with child neglect or something?

    • Mina

      I agree – because with the parents saying they did not teach their child right from wrong – I can only hope they loose ALL their money in the civil lawsuits that are being brought against them. I hope they have to sell every home they own, every car/truck they own, all assets… send them to the poor house. There is no excuse for such a defense. But hey.. if they want to admit it then take EVERYTHING from them.

  • podmanic

    The South Kent School motto is: Simplicity of Life, Directness of Purpose, and Self Reliance. This is a pretty straightforward way of life that is a hood antidote to the affliction described.

  • Caroline

    This story makes me sick for the use of such a lame excuse – Affluenza ~ bah! It’s plainly anti-social behavior. The parents need to be taken to task; all parents, and person’s of influence need to take stock! ,

    Our society has become blind of their personal faults against society and those we call “other people” I’d say much of society is blind, and lives unconscious and lacking for the qualities of compassion and empathy. That’s why there’s so much use of drugs, and alcohol – those blunt the search for truth and equity. . . it needs to be taught.

    Judge Jean Boyd needs to have her head examined. I heard she’s not running again – Good Idea! What a stupendous blunder! How stupid is that sentence? Every kid deserves to be taught so they come to understand consequences,

    Hey! Judge Boyd, have you ever heard that your position in our society is to set a good example? How much unthinking, unaware, unconsciousness could be had in one case? Here’s hoping it costs reputations, and they all end up penniless ~ Let them know how the other 43% of the populous feels.

  • jonathanpulliam

    The Judge’s sentencing reflects a.) his/her mandate to protect society, b.) to rehabilitate those convicted to make recidivism less likely, c.) to punish, in accordance with inviolable constitutional protections forbidding cruel or unusual treatment. I refuse to believe the sentencing judge in this case was swayed by arguments of defense counsel attributing the behavior to “affluenza”, irrespective of all the hype and irresponsible speculation in the media. The Judge heard the evidence, and was best situated to render the appropriate sentence, which he need make no apologies for, in my view.

    • daweeni2

      I wish I could kill a bunch of people, and get a year’s paid vacation in a resort, with massages, as a punishment.

      Actually, I don’t wish I could kill a bunch of people, but I’d take the punishment like a man, all the same.

    • Mihai Danila

      I think we know why the judge did not recommend jail time: the rehabilitation services were, in her opinion, inadequate for him were he to go to jail. So tell me, was she well situated to make this claim? If your child does something wrong next time, would you forgo punishment and send him on vacation? Because that’s what this judge did. For a very severe kind of bad deed: one that killed four and paralyzed another.

      Worse yet, this sets a legal precedent.

      Even worse, it’s an impartial precedent. A poor kid would not have been offered such a lenient sentence.

      I would wrap up with a question that I haven’t heard asked yet: why are the prosecutors not appealing this verdict?

  • it_disqus

    Ted Kennedy suffered from that also.

    • TJtruthandjustice

      By the time Chappaquiddick rolled around, two of Ted’s brothers had been gunned down in cold blood (by God only knows who), a sister was killed in a plane crash, and another brother was killed in an in-flight military explosion. He himself had recently survived a near-fatal plane accident. Give the guy a goddamn break. He did more for this country than you’d do in a thousand lifetimes.

      • Mihai Danila

        Oh, yeah? Give me a seat, and I will do even more than he did. And I didn’t get scott free off of an aggravated manslaughter case. It is shameful to defend him in this manner.

  • daweeni2

    The judge is a Republican and the perp’s dad is a rich Republican donor. Say no more. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

    • it_disqus

      Have you ever heard of the Chappaquiddick Kid?

      • dust truck

        yes, because the Democrats are the party that are associated with corruption today. Oh wait, that happened 40 years ago.

        • it_disqus

          He served as a Democrat till his death in 2009. I’m not for this kid getting off easy. This is not just a Republican thing and anyone who thinks it is just has their party blinders on.

          • dust truck

            He paid his debt to society, the grad jury never found enough evidence, so unless you’re the delusional sort to see conspiracies everywhere, the whole issue ended in 1971. Yes, it was shady. Yes, the Kennedys were notorious for this sort of thing. But this was 40 years ago, and not reflective of the Democratic party in 2013. So unless you have your party blinders on, it’s irrelevant today.

        • fun bobby

          this partisan show is so exhausting. yes its the other party that is always the corrupt one

  • Jason Leblanc

    affluenza defense would be rich judge covering for rich brat from rich family, kid was poor he would likely get life

  • J__o__h__n

    I hope his lawyer charged enough so that his family will be relieved of their problem.

  • lex

    affluenza is not real , its not regionsed by dsm-v or icd, its junk science at its worst

  • WhatTheFrock

    It’s amusing that a made up condition used to describe an upbringing of over-consumption was used as a defense for a crime that killed 4 people and actually worked.

  • im right you are wrong

    disgusting. who was the judge? idiot!

  • v.

    If it was a low class 16 year old with drug attict parents who never tought him anything would he get the same judgement?..no jail time for theft, underage drinking, drunk driving, killing 4 people, hurting 11 others?
    there must be a lot of money involved here..i wonder if he feels any remorse.

  • LB

    “Affluenza” Another bogus “ailment”. What it is- is a condition we already know as “entitlement”. The REAL entitlement and not misnamed “entitlements” of the poor known as food and housing.

  • David F

    The only possible cure for “affluenza” is a lengthy prison sentence.

  • jefe68

    This 16 year old and his family are going to get sued into the next century.
    The outcome may be his family loses everything. That’s a sentence they will understand, one that takes there assets. This is far from over.

    • ClaraThomas

      As the old saying goes:

      In Nature, there are neither rewards or punishments, only consequences.

  • ClaraThomas

    I heard last evening that the parents have had their run ins with the law in the past.
    Great examples for junior.

    Also this 16 year old will be heading out to some rehab center in California at the cost of $450,000 per year. Seems that the court is having daddy, the millionaire pay for this treatment.
    Its a pretty high class rehab center, just about on the level of how he may have lived at home while suffering from his “affluenza”. Leave it to the lawyers to come up with these lame excuses. After all, that’s what they get paid for.



  • ClaraThomas

    Now that these teen killer is heading off to California, time for Rick Perry to step up and get rid of this judge before her term is up. But does he have the fortitude to came the Texas legislature back in session.
    She has created enough damage already.

  • Eric McDowell

    Leave it to the lawyers. I can’t say I’m surprised. Remember Dan White’s “Twinkie” defense back in 1978?

  • fun bobby

    I heard that Bhutan was going off the gross national happiness standard

  • Thomassen

    If the child is not responsible for his own behavior due to parental negligence, wouldn’t that make his parents responsible and eligible for prosecution?

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