The “Affluenza” Defense: Right or Wrong?
January 18, 2014
The recent case of Texas teen Ethan Couch has left many in and outside the legal community scratching their heads in confusion. Couch, a wealthy white sixteen-year-old, killed the four people he plowed his truck into while driving drunk after stealing beer—but was only sentenced to 10 years’ probation, with no jail time.
How did this happen? Arguing for his client, attorney Scott Brown created the “affluenza” defense. He claimed that Couch’s wealthy parents so effectively cushioned their son with so much privilege, that he wasn’t really responsible for his actions because he never learned right from wrong. Brown positioned Couch as a victim of wealth whose parents “never set limits for the boy.” Basically, Brown argued that because Couch didn’t know it was wrong, he wasn’t really responsible.
There’s a lot of outrage over this verdict. Some see the sentence as typical of the class-based nature of our judicial system, while others see it as a new kind of violation of the adage“ignorance of the law is no defense.”
The victims’ families are stunned and hurt by the sentence. Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter was killed by Couch, told CNN that “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.”In particular, many feel that the verdict protects Couch from real-world consequences in much the same way that his parents did.
There is also great controversy over the validity of affluenza as a legitimate diagnosis. As psychologist Christopher J. Ferguson explained on Time magazine’s website,
“Affluenza, in fact, is not a recognized illness. It is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve never before seen a mental health practitioner try to diagnose someone with affluenza. And there is practically nothing in the research literature about it.”
Society’s View of Criminal Defense Attorneys
The case also supports the low opinions many people have about criminal defense attorneys. Frankly, criminal defense attorneys get a bad rap in our society. It’s not uncommon for such lawyers to receive hate mail and death threats, for example—especially when they defend people accused of clearly odious crimes, such as the murder of children. In the media, for every positive portrayal of a noble criminal defense attorney fighting for justice, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, there are countless reverse images of criminal defense lawyers as corrupt protectors of evil. Just think of Tom Hagen in The Godfather or Maury Levy on “The Wire”: both are morally compromised and greedy attorneys on the take, defending murderers and drug dealers. It doesn’t help that there are real-life examples of such lawyers, including Paul Bergrin, the New Jersey lawyer who was just sentenced to six life terms for crimes including racketeering and the murder of state witnesses.
What Do Criminal Defense Attorneys Do?
The poor media representation of defense attorneys is unfortunate, because criminal defense attorneys are among the few people in our judicial system who work to protect the rights of the accused. A criminal defense attorney’s main task is to secure for his or her client the best possible outcome, regardless of the charges facing that client. Attorney Jennifer L, McCann, who has defended some of the most reviled criminals in our society, explained this on the Outside the Beltway website. She said,
“People assume I’m O.K. with a young boy being murdered because I represent the defendant. To me, that’s pretty vicious. They have to understand, I’m not all right with people being murdered or with crime. I’m all right with defending constitutional rights.”
Fortunately, most people understand this salient fact about criminal defense attorneys. In order for our system to function properly, it is essential that all defendants not only have the right to counsel, as is guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but are also provided with an effective defense. To do this, criminal defense attorneys often seem to make improbable claims or go to what looks like absurd lengths to fight for their clients.
In the case of Ethan Couch, many people think that the defense team overstepped the bounds of sanity and fairness. But the reality is that his attorneys mounted a defense that was convincing to the judge and jury. And that’s what a criminal defense attorney is supposed to do, whether you agree with Couch’s sentence or not.
About the Author:Attorney Mike Schlosser represents victims of personal injury, those charged with a crime, as well as those facing traffic charges. A former Guilford County, North Carolina District Attorney, Schlosser has been in private practice at the Law Firm of Schlosser & Pritchett since 1983 and has been a member of the North Carolina State Bar since 1973.