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Why Should Ethan Couch Get a 'Mulligan' for Manslaughter?


Just because a family doesn't know right from wrong doesn't mean the rest of us should abandon certain timeless standards. The "affluenza" defense is pernicious, absurd and a total affront to justice. It threatens to become a moral contagion.

Ethan Couch is led by sheriff deputies after a juvenile court for a hearing Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. A Texas judge ruled Couch, who used an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck will be moved to adult court, meaning the teen could face jail time for the 2013 wreck that killed four people. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The "affluenza" family is back in the news again. We first learned about the Couch family from Texas in the winter of 2013-2014 when 16-year-old Ethan received a sentence of 10 years of probation — a sentence that many people, myself included, thought was too lenient a penalty for someone who had killed four innocent people while driving drunk.

Now Ethan's mother, Tonya Couch, who earlier had been charged with colluding with her son to help him avoid apprehension after he had illegally fled the United States, was recently charged with money laundering in connection with Ethan's escape to Mexico last year.

Image via ABC/CNN

I've got to hand it to whoever coined the catchy term "affluenza." The word is as catchy as the disease from which the name was adapted. It was popularized by the psychologist who testified at Ethan Couch's 2013 trial that the young man was incapable of telling right from wrong because his rich parents had spoiled him so badly.

The affluenza defense was a miscarriage of justice. First of all, by creating a special standard that can apply only to young people with rich, indulgent parents, it is prejudicial against poor people or anyone whose parents were strict disciplinarians. It used to be that ignorance of the law was no defense, but now if you are so spoiled with ignorance, the law gives you a special break. That stinks.

For a psychologist and a judge to assert that a mentally competent 16-year-old should have the customary legal punishment for quadruple manslaughter waived because he allegedly doesn't know right from wrong is to give a blank check to moral idiots to wreak mayhem with impunity. Why should Ethan Couch get a "mulligan" for manslaughter? His innocent victims weren't given a "mulligan" — a do-over so that they could go on with their lives.

The sanctity of human life is the most elementary precept of social morality. I find it hard to believe that young Mr. Couch doesn't grasp that moral truth or that he didn't when he snuffed out four lives. Even if we accept the judge's dubious conclusion that Couch didn't know that killing human beings was wrong, that would be perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of incarceration as Couch's punishment. I mean, we don't want people on the loose who don't know that killing others is a crime, do we?

The other problem with the affluenza defense is that the parents weren't found liable. If they, due to their parental malfeasance, had turned loose on society a son who didn't know right from wrong and then killed four people, then if the judge believed that the son didn't bear all the blame, logically he should have ruled that the parents bore part of the blame. As it was, the parents got a free pass and the son got off with probation. In other words, the judge essentially ruled that nobody was fully responsible for the crime that happened, and so he mitigated the sentence.

The absurdities of the affluenza defense are glaringly obvious. Let us hope that this pernicious rationalization of criminal behavior - this moral outrage against justice and civilization - has been thoroughly discredited.

Mark Hendrickson is Fellow for Economic and Social Policy with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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