Who is Ethan Couch? The crime of a 16-year-old who killed 4, its consequences and the 'affluenza' debate

Couch's attorneys had argued that Couch had 'affluenza' and needed rehabilitation instead of prison, sparking nationwide outrage


                            Who is Ethan Couch? The crime of a 16-year-old who killed 4, its consequences and the 'affluenza' debate
Ethan Couch (US Marshals via Getty Images)

It was the night of June 15, 2013. Ethan Couch, 16, and his friends went to his parents’ Burleson home to have a party. Later, he and seven others piled into a pickup truck owned by his father’s company to go to a store. According to The New York Times, prosecutors alleged Couch swerved off Burleson-Retta Road, killing four pedestrians: Breanna Mitchell; Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby, 21; and Brian Jennings.

The test results showed that Couch had allegedly a blood-alcohol level of 0.24, three times the legal limit for drivers. He was 16-year-old at that time and from a well-off family. He was sentenced to 10 years’ probation for killing four people in a drunken-driving crash.

The NYT report states that Judge Jean Boyd did not discuss her reasoning for her order, however, the report notes that it came after a psychologist called by the defense argued that Couch should not be sent to prison because he suffered from “affluenza” — a term that can be traced back to almost the 1980s to define the psychological problems that can bother children of privilege. An ABC News report further explained, it is a term the psychologist used to describe Couch's irresponsible lifestyle associated with his affluent upbringing – and alleged that irresponsible parenting had "strongly enabled" the accident. 

What happened on June 15?

As per the ABC News report, around 11 pm, the Boyles family just finished watching a movie when Hollie and Shelby observed some commotion outside of their house. Eric Boyles said the three walked out the front door to find a wrecked Mercury Mountaineer that had spun out and crashed into their neighbor's culvert. The shocked driver was 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell, who was on her way home from a catering job. While Mitchell used Shelby Boyles' cellphone to call her mother for help, Eric Boyles carried a mailbox that had been knocked over by the Mountaineer to his house.

On the other hand, 12-year-old Lucas McConnell asked his mother if he and his friend, Isaiah McLaughlin, could ride with his godfather, Pastor Brian Jennings, to help return the tables and folding chairs that the families used for a graduation party. When the three were traveling down Burleson-Retta Road, they noticed the Mountaineer on the side of the road and Jennings pulled over to help. Lucas McConnell told ABC News’ "20/20" that the pastor told the two boys, "Y'all sit tight, I'll be back in just a minute.” “And that was like the last thing that he said to us, and then he just got out of the car," McConnell said.

Meanwhile, at Couch's house, the party was at its peak until Starr Teague, the only teen at the party who wasn't drinking, told Couch she needed to get to a convenience store. Despite many of the people telling Couch, he was too drunk to drive, all eight of them piled into Couch's red Ford F-350 -- six in the cab of the truck and two in the truck bed. In deposition tapes obtained by ABC News, Teague testified, "I was very, very hesitant. It didn't feel right getting in."

As Pastor Jennings, Hollie and Shelby Boyles and Mitchell were waiting on the side of the road, Couch pulled out of his driveway. A highly-intoxicated Couch drove down the narrow two-lane country road, reportedly traveling at nearly 70 miles per hour, according to Tarrant County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert. In deposition tapes, Teague, testified, "I was yelling at him that he needed to get over. And when he swerved, the back tires jerked, and we skidded off into the side ditch." Another passenger in the truck, Garrett Ballard, testified he "just remembered seeing something in the road and then a loud bang, then I remember being in the air."

His reckless driving led to a chain reaction that resulted in a horrific and fatal scene. Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert explained to "20/20" that swerving back over caused Couch to go off the road and hit the disabled SUV and all four people standing around the car. Couch's truck then hit Brian Jennings' vehicle and knocked it across the roadway into oncoming traffic. Eric Boyles heard an explosion that impacted his house. "I didn't know what it was. I didn't think that it would involve my wife and daughter. But I knew immediately it wasn't good," Boyles told "20/20." He went to check on his wife and daughter and was horrified by what he saw in front of his house. Car parts, bodies and debris were scattered everywhere, he said. "Once I found Hollie and, and I knew that ... she was gone. Then it was a matter of 'OK, so where is Shelby?'" Boyles said. And about 20 feet down the road, Boyles found the body of his daughter thrown up against a fence. Kevin McConnell, Pastor Brian Jennings's friend, then drove to the scene. "The debris in the road that I saw was the chairs that we had been taking back to the church and my heart just sank. I was like, 'Oh, my God, it's Brian,'" McConnell recounted. McConnell got out of his car and found Jennings lying in a ditch.

Later, Brian Jennings' wife, Shaunna Jennings, who was driving home from her son Evan Jennings' graduation party, arrived on the scene. "I saw him [Brian] and knew that it wasn't good because I could see Kevin was doing CPR on him. It's almost like watching a movie. It's not like it's happening to you. But it was," Shaunna Jennings told "20/20."

About a quarter-mile from the scene of the accident, Shanna Clark and her teenage son, Corbin, found a passed out teenager lying in a ditch. Shauna pulled off the road to tend to the teen. Corbin Clark told "20/20" that a disoriented Couch, who had a scratch on his back and blood on his chest, eventually woke up. "'Hey man, I am, I am Ethan, I can get you out of all of this.' And I was like ... I guess he thought I was involved," Corbin Clark said. Once Shanna Clark was back at the scene with officers, she said Couch fought their attempts to get him medical attention. As the officers tried to calm him down, the teen struggled and said, "I can't afford an ambulance. I can't afford this."

The aftermath

Following the events of that unfortunate night, prosecutors charged Couch with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Couch pled guilty, and the hearing that followed garnered international attention and sparked a lot of reactions.
 
At the December 2013 hearing, Couch's strong legal team called psychologist Dr G Dick Miller to the stand to testify on Couch's behalf. Miller alleged that Couch's wealthy upbringing and a lack of consequences for his actions caused him to suffer from "affluenza." During his deposition, Miller said he had "strongly" suggested in the criminal sentencing that Couch needed to be separated from his parents and that their parenting "strongly enabled" the deadly accident.

While the prosecution backed for 20 years in prison, the judge sentenced  Couch to 10 years of probation and time in a rehab facility. Since the deadly June 2013 crash, six separate civil suits have been filed against Couch, his parents, Tonya and Fred Couch, and the Couch family business, Cleburne Sheet Metal. Family members of victims who were killed in the crash -- Pastor Brian Jennings, Breanna Mitchell and Hollie and Shelby Boyles -- have all settled their suits. The family of Sergio Molina, a teen who flung from the bed of Couch's truck, filed and settled a suit on his behalf. Molina suffered a serious brain injury and can no longer speak or move. Also, the families of Lucas McConnell and Isaiah McLaughlin, who were in Pastor Brian Jennings's white truck at the time of the crash, filed and settled suits with the Couch family. All the cases settled without the defendants admitting fault.

The ‘affluenza’ phenomenon

There was a lot of discussion about the ‘affluenza’ term being used during that time. As reported by ABC News, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert said Miller "got up there and he talked about the fact that the reason for this crime was he was a child of privilege and his parents didn't say no to him. It was ridiculous."

The 2013 NYT article mentioned that Liz Ryan, the president, and chief executive of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a group in Washington that advocates for juvenile rehabilitation, had said, at that time, that in some cases before the Supreme Court and state courts, advances in neuroscience have been applied to questions of crime and punishment for young people. Ryan had said, “They make mistakes, they’re prone to impulsive behavior. And at the same time, they are capable of change.” However, Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, had opined, “Just when you think our excuse-making culture has sunk as low as it can go, somebody goes yet lower.”

‘Affluenza Teen: The Jailhouse Sessions’ will air on January 2 at 8 pm ET on Reelz.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515