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'Affluenza' defense helps rich kid killer avoid prison, draws plenty of ire

It seems like a satirical story in The Onion: a Texas teen from a wealthy family is given 10 years probation instead of 20 years in prison for a deadly DUI, successfully arguing he suffered from "Affluenza." But it's very real, and drawing plenty of ire across the country.

A psychologist convinced the judge 16-year-old Ethan Couch deserved a break because he was a rich kid whose parents gave him everything and he didn't know right from wrong, even though he killed four people.

The term "Affluenza" was popularized in the late 1990's and has since been used to describe a condition in which children - generally from richer families - have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol.

Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his pickup truck, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit when he slammed into four pedestrians, killing Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.

But even though prosecutors recommended the maximum sentence, the judge sentenced him to 10 years probation. His parents are sending him to a luxurious $450,000-a-year rehabilitation center in Southern California instead.

"It doesn't matter if your parents teach you or not," KIRO Radio's Tom Tangney laments. "He's 16 years old, he's lived in this world, he knows right from wrong, you have a sense of that. Society teaches that."

Tangney argues the defense is especially ridiculous and hypocritical because kids who grow up in poverty don't get the same treatment.

"Because God knows there are millions of kids who have been prosecuted and put in jail for crimes. And they don't get off by saying 'well, I'm from a broken home' like this kid claimed and 'my parents didn't teach me right from wrong.'"

KIRO Radio's John Curley is among those arguing the case demonstrates the disparity between the rich and poor when it comes to the criminal justice system.

"It is a sad but true story that if you have money, you have a different legal system than just about everybody else, because you get a real lawyer that really knows how to work the system, as opposed to somebody appointed to you that has 200 cases."

Even though the judge bought the "Affluenza" defense, psychologists say it's not a recognized diagnosis and shouldn't have been accepted as a legitimate argument.

"Essentially what he has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation," Dr. Gary Buffone, a Florida psychologist tells the Associated Press.

Buffone says there's a better term for Couch: "spoiled brat."

"I actually wouldn't mind then if the parents took the fall for him," says Tangney. "Let his parents go to prison for 10 or 20 years."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Josh Kerns, MyNorthwest.com Reporter
Josh Kerns is an award winning reporter/anchor and host of KIRO Radio's Seattle Sounds (Sunday afternoons 5-6p) and a digital content producer for MyNorthwest.com.
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