Lawyer blasts media for ‘affluenza’ focus

Posted at 5:10 AM, Feb 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-07 07:10:51-05

By Tom Watkins

(CNN) — A lawyer representing the 16-year-old Texas boy who killed four people and critically injured two others while driving drunk lashed out Thursday at the news media for their focus on the use of “affluenza” to describe the boy’s privileged upbringing.

Of the two experts who testified in defense of Ethan Couch, only one used the word and he used it just once, attorney Reagan Wynn told CNN’s “New Day.” “That term was not used by either of the lawyers that represented Mr. Couch, and it was not our defense, simply put.”

He added, “I think it is ridiculous for anyone who knows anything about the criminal justice system or the juvenile justice system to think that we walked into court and said, ‘Hey, judge, this is a rich, white kid,’ and she went, ‘Oh, OK, probation.’ ”

Asked whether he had ever heard of a poor child getting probation — and no jail time — after having killed four people, Wynn acknowledged that he had not. But, he said, the goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate more than to punish.

“I would submit to you that kids who do things by accident or mistake probably should not be locked up with the key thrown away,” he said.

Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, said he thinks the media criticism over the term caused the defense team to want the term to go away.

“I was actually surprised to hear them attempt to walk back the ‘affluenza’ term. They created it. The outcry follows it,” he told “Anderson Cooper 360”. “And now they wish that indeed that the negative focus wasn’t so much around ‘affluenza.’ ”

Doctor coins term

Psychologist Dick Miller testified in December that “affluenza” describes a condition caused when a child of privileged background suffers no consequences for repeated bad behavior.

But it is not recognized as a medical condition in any formal sense and Miller acknowledged to Cooper in December, “We used to call these people ‘spoiled brats.’ ”

The prosecutor had asked that Couch be sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Instead, State District Judge Jean Boyd ordered in December that he be placed on probation for 10 years.

In a proceeding Wednesday closed to the news media, she specified the terms of that probation: She ordered that Couch undergo rehabilitation — at his family’s expense — at a locked treatment facility in Texas that has not been identified publicly, Wynn said. No minimum time was ordered, though the boy’s driver’s license was suspended and he was ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his sentence probation.

After the proceeding, Wynn was vehement in his attack on the news media.

“If this case has not taught me anything else, it has confirmed what I was pretty sure of all along — which is that the media circus is poison to the criminal justice system,” Wynn told reporters on Wednesday, adding that the news coverage had affected decisions by treatment facilities about whether to accept Couch for treatment.

“The story that was reported has so twisted the facts that were actually presented in court that I don’t think the truth will ever be able to come out now,” he said.

Asked what the public was missing from the news reports, he said, “I’m not going to go into detail with you, but I will tell you that if you had been in the courtroom and you had heard all the testimony, you would have heard a significantly different story than what was reported.”

Wynn’s attack on the media’s focus on “affluenza” was rich, the prosecutor said.

“Really?” asked Richard Alpert, when told of the defense lawyer’s remarks. “Well, that’s ironic, because it’s his expert that brought that before the courtroom, so somebody made a decision before this hearing that that was a good term.

“He’s a good attorney, his witnesses don’t say things by accident. So they thought maybe that would help. That’s my interpretation. And it blew up on them. It was a stupid thing to say, it affected the credibility of that expert and it will follow that expert wherever he testifies. It was a dumb idea and his testimony wasn’t credible.”

Looking for an apology

Couch’s avoidance of jail time underscores the need for legislative changes, Alpert told reporters Wednesday. “There are some problems with the way juvenile justice is done,” he said. “We’re going to ask for the right to a jury trial, we’re going to hope to get legislation to do that, let a jury of his peers determine what the punishment should be.”

Boyles said he only wanted to hear Couch say he was sorry.

“We certainly have not seen any remorse,” he said Thursday, adding that based on Couch’s demeanor in the courtroom, he didn’t think the teenager understands what he has done.

Last June, his wife, Hollie Boyles, and daughter, Shelby, left their home to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down. Brian Jennings, a youth pastor, was driving past and also stopped to help.

All four were killed when the Couch’s pickup truck plowed into the pedestrians on a road in Burleson, south of Fort Worth. Couch’s vehicle also struck a parked car, which then slid into another vehicle headed in the opposite direction.

Two people riding in the bed of the pickup were injured. One is no longer able to move or talk because of a brain injury, while the other suffered internal injuries and broken bones.

According to prosecutors, three hours after the crash, tests showed Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit.

Lawyer: Couch does feel remorse

Despite his client’s avoidance of jail time, Wynn said he didn’t feel Couch won. “There is no winner in this case,” he said. “Ethan is going to live with what he did for the rest of his life, and I can tell you that he certainly feels remorse.”

He said his client is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the accident, that he is “emotionally and socially arrested to where he is effectively like a 12-year-old,” and that he is “basically shell-shocked” by the process. “He has a very flat affect, he is able to express remorse but, quite frankly, I don’t think there is anything he was going to say to anyone that was going to make them feel any better, especially coming from him.”

Marla Mitchell, whose daughter Breanna was among the victims, said Couch may have gotten off easy, but he’s not done yet.

“Even though he knows how to beat this game, and even if he follows all the little things and jumps through the hoops and does the tricks he’s supposed to do, I don’t think the world is ever going to take their eyes off of him — no matter where is is, no matter where he goes, no matter what game he or his family think they’ve beaten.”

She said she hopes his rehabilitation efforts succeed, but added, “I think it’s shutting the barn door after the horse is already out. But we’ll see.”

Boyles said that while he took some solace in the fact Couch wasn’t allowed to go to some expensive treatment facility with horse riding, yoga and other activities, he still will get to return to his nice life after he finishes his treatment.

“I had a warm, vibrant home that I went to every night. I now go home to a quiet, stark, sterile environment,” he told Cooper. “So it’s now not a … it’s just a house. It’s not a home.”

CNN’s Dana Ford, Steve Almasy and Ed Lavandera contributed to this report

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