UPDATED: The recent case of Ethan Couch, 16, out of Burleson, Texas has been previously addressed on this blog (here and here) in general terms of the fundamental unfairness and apparent bias of the plea deal and in psychological terms concerning both the social isolation wealth can engender and the consequent lack of empathy that creates. Let’s look at this in a little more detail as relates to justice and the corrosive effect such rulings have on social order. The pattern of facts in this case are critical to examining whether or not Couch’s sentence was just and inform whether or not such rulings are corrosive to society as a whole. To summarize:
Hollie Boyles, 52, Shelby Boyles, 21, Brian Jennings, 41, and Breanna Mitchell, 24, are the primary victims.
Just before midnight on June 15, 2013, Mitchell was driving west on Burleson-Retta Road when she had a blowout, forcing her pickup truck into a roadside ditch. Living nearby, Hollie and Shelby Boyles heard the blowout and went to render assistance. Jennings, a Burleson youth minister, was returning from his son’s high school graduation party when he stopped to assist Mitchell as well. All four were on the roadside when they were struck by a pickup truck driven by Ethan Couch. The Ford F-350 pickup was going between 65 and 70 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour speed zone when it clipped Mitchell’s stranded truck before striking and killing the four bystanders. Couch’s truck then struck Jenning’s pickup truck (in which two young boys were waiting) sending it back into the roadway. There it collided with an eastbound Volkswagon carrying two Burleson girls before going off the south side of the road. Couch’s truck then flipped over, coming to rest against a tree on the north side of the road. Two other teenagers riding in the bed of Couch’s truck were thrown from the vehicle. One suffered broken bones and internal injuries. The other suffered a traumatic brain injury that left them unable to move or talk.
There is no contest concerning who was driving the truck that struck the stranded motorist and her would be aides. Couch admits he was driving. There was no question about the drinking. Couch and his friends had been drinking beer after stealing it earlier in the evening from a local Walmart. Three hours after the wreck, Couch’s BAC was .24, approximately three times the legal driving limit.
He could have been sent to prison for 20 years. Instead, Couch was sentenced to 10 years of probation, a $450,000 out of state recovery program and denied contact with his parents. All for showing what can only be described as a reckless and wanton disregard for the safety of others that resulted in four deaths and two serious injuries that have brought pain, misery and deprivation to the lives of many family and friends. True, since the crime happened as a minor, Couch’s sentence could have been reviewed and modified at age 18, but he would have seen first hand the harshest consequences for his behavior even if only briefly.
If you are like most people with a normal conscience, your reaction to this sentence was likely some degree of outrage at what can be fairly viewed as the wealthy receiving preferential treatment from the courts and an unjust resolution to a criminal case. But what is justice? Why is justice important?
Justice isn’t a simple matter of black and white although it can be clear cut at times. That is the exception though and not the rule. Often a situation arises where there is no perfectly just solution. Damage done cannot be undone so an approximation of justice is had by a combination of punishments and/or restoring the victims to as whole a state as possible. It is the duty of the courts in those situations to craft a remedy that is as close to just as possible given the facts of the situation. At the core of justice is the idea of equity.
noun (plural equities)
the quality of being fair and impartial
To contrast, the antonym . . .
noun (plural inequities)
lack of fairness or justice
Aside from the equity component of justice, there is the public safety component. Dangerous people either need to be rehabilitated (something admittedly our penal systems do a poor job with fulfilling) or, if they are incorrigible, separated from the general public to reduce/eliminate chances of future harm. There is also a smaller but no less important revenge component. It is important not so much as a matter of karma, but as a psychological social control mechanism. Part of the role of using adversarial courts is to discourage the remedy of self-help that exists at nature. If the punishment is perceived as harsh enough to sate the impulse for revenge in victims and/or their families and friends, they are less likely to seek revenge on the guilty themselves. “Order” is a part people often forget about or minimize in the phrase “law and order”. Providing justice is a critical component of keeping social order.
In a case like this where the judgement is widely seen as being unjust, is there a possibility of appeal? Yes, technically there is although it is rare. However, it must be timely – usually within 30 days of the judgement although it is 15 days in Texas – and it is usually the prosecution that would bring such an appeal. That seems unlikely here as Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert seems reluctant, stating “We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but have no power under the law to change or overturn it. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and we regret that this outcome has added to the pain and suffering they have endured.” Although ADA Alpert does indeed not have the power to carte blanche change the ruling, he most certainly has the power to appeal it under Texas law to a judge further up the food chain who would have the power to amend the sentence. However, it is at this point in the story that local politics and legal technicality rears its head. If ADA Alpert were to appeal this ruling, he would be taking to task local judge Jean Boyd and in essence claiming her judgement faulty as it resulted in a miscarriage of justice. This would be a huge brouhaha politically. It also would have a slim chance as – while the sentence is arguably a facially repugnant miscarriage of justice – the sentence is within the bounds of judicial discretion and not per se illegal. An appeal would also incur significant costs to the state, further drag out matters for the families and likely not result in a more just sentence. While it may be the “right thing to do” to bring such an appeal, it may be a legally futile and/or politically Pyrrhic effort. However, given the insular nature of the community and the substantive wealth of the defendant in this case, such a suspect ruling does invite state authorities to go over Judge Boyd’s books and potential relationships with the defendant’s family with a fine tooth comb. If any impropriety is found, the sentence could be appealed and modified as illegal or vacated and a new trial ordered.
So what are we left with? An ugly situation made uglier by a judge showing what appears to be rank favoritism in sentencing to a criminal defendant based upon said defendant’s wealth (and consequent social status). What we are left with is a failure of the criminal justice system to dispense justice with equality and impartial fairness.
Where to next? There are civil suits pending. Five of them as of the writing of this column. The first being filed by the parents of Sergio Molina, the teen left with brain damage after being thrown from the bed of Couch’s pickup. Shaunna Jennings, wife of Brian Jennings, has filed suit on behalf of herself and her children. Marla Mitchell, mother of Breanna Mitchell has filed suit. Kevin and Alesia McConnell, whose son was also in Couch’s truck at the time of the crash have filed. The fifth filing is by Eric Boyles and Marguerite Boyles, husband and daughter of Hollie Boyles, seeking actual damages including burial and funeral expenses and punitive damages. The Boyles’ suit accuses Ethan Couch of “driving while intoxicated, driving above the speed limit, failing to control his speed, having more than one person in the truck who was under 21 and not related to him, disregarding a restriction on his driver’s license that he only drive with a licensed adult in the front seat, and being in possession of alcohol even though he was underage.” Also named as defendants are Couch’s father, Fred Couch, and his company Cleburne Metal Works – the registered owner of the truck – accused of “gross negligence” for entrusting the pickup to an incompetent or reckless driver. Given the admissions and conviction of the criminal trial, winning a civil suit should be a much easier proposition for the parties involved against the Couchs. Fred Couch and family stand to lose a substantial amount of money over Ethan’s crimes. Maybe even everything, although that cannot be said with any kind of certainty as details of their personal finances are not publicly published.
But is that enough? Can money ever replace the loss of a loved one? No. Not really. It’s one of those situations where there is no perfectly just solution so a solution as close to just as possible should ideally be crafted. That probation for killing four people is not even close to a just solution is (I think) apparent to anyone with a functioning sense of basic fairness and not a sociopath. The criminal sentence remains inequitable no matter what the civil judgements turn out to be. Ethan Couch will be free on the streets, ready to think his money buys him the ability to get away with homicide. There will be no sense for the families of the victims that their loved ones have been avenged. As Eric Boyles said through tears at the sentencing hearing, “There…there are just some things that even today…are just too difficult to talk about. At this point, we are trying to take life one day at a time. I do look forward to the day that we can put some of this behind us. Today could have been a good start at that…and unfortunately the wounds that it opened only makes the healing process that much greater.” Boyles also said, “There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country.”
Justice has failed.
UPDATE: Apparently others have identified Judge Boyd as the weak link in this failure as well. NBCDFW.com is reporting the following this morning:
Boyd’s decision has led to public calls for her resignation and an online petition on Change.org demanding that Gov. Rick Perry remove Boyd from the bench.
Under current Texas law, the governor can remove a sitting judge from the bench with approval of two-thirds of Texas House and Senate members.
Boyd, who previously announced she is retiring at the end of her term next year, declined to comment on both the sentencing decision and the calls for her removal when contacted by NBC 5. Boyd said speaking about the situation would be unethical.
The outrage over the sentencing decision is largely linked to the testimony of psychologist Gary Miller, a witness for the defense who said Ethan Couch suffered from ‘affluenza,’ a term suggesting his parents’ wealth and privilege taught him there were no consequences for bad behavior.”
As guest blogger Mike Spindell points to in his column addressing the “affluenza” defense, the defendants here are unlikely to be substantively changed by losing money. Their insular life creates a type of delusional sense of superiority and entitlement that is only reinforced by this judgement and a form of anosognosia that keeps them from realizing just exactly how wrong they are in thinking “some animals are more equal than others”.
This case is a fine illustration of what is wrong with oligarchy in general and plutocracy in the specific. When the few are given preferential treatment by the legal systems of a country, it breeds discontent as injustice always does. Unequal treatment under the law has a corrosive compounding effect on society. With each injustice, social order decays just a little and the potential for social unrest grows. Rome was not built in day, so the saying goes, but just so she was not destroyed in a day either. It was an incremental process as is has been in all states fallen to discord, rebellion and revolution. That is the ultimate danger of a bifurcated justice system to social stability and the cost of “social anosognosia”. The oligarchs, no matter their particular political flavor, ignore social justice for personal gain at huge risk to themselves and to society as a whole. It is their arrogance that makes them think their walls and security will hold because they have money and “privilege” when history shows again and again that if you ignore the needs of the many – including the needs of the many for impartial justice – the many will eventually rise up and slay the oligarchs. From Rome, to France, to Russia, to our own American Revolution, it seems that people like Judge Boyd and others in positions of governmental and economic power have either forgotten the lessons of history, ignored them in their arrogance or are simply unaware that they are eating away at the pillars of civilized society with favoritism and venality.
One day, gravity will finish the job they started unless we as a society start doing something to ensure justice is equitable, fair and impartial.
We can start by engineering our legal system so that such manifest miscarriages of justice as handed down by Judge Boyd are easier to challenge and both the bench and the wealthy are not held sacrosanct because of position or wealth and afforded deference that they are not due in an egalitarian society.
What do you think?
~submitted by Gene Howington, guest blogger