Sentences Vary for Drunken Teens in Texas Fatal Wrecks

December 24, 2013

Nearly a decade before giving a 16-year-old boy probation for a drunken crash that killed four people, the same Texas judge sentenced a teen in a similar case to 20 years.

Prosecutors continue looking for a way to get a stiffer sentence for Ethan Couch after state District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to 10 years’ probation for the June wreck in North Texas. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Boyd handed down the 20-year term to another teenage boy in a 2004 drunken driving case.

The confidentiality of juvenile cases makes them difficult to compare. Huyen Pham, a criminal law professor at Texas A&M Law School, says each case is decided on its own merit. Factors could include whether the defendant shows remorse or has substance abuse problems.

But the similarity between Couch’s case and that of 16-year-old Eric Bradlee Miller could fuel critics who say Couch received special treatment because of his family’s wealth.

On Feb. 13, 2004, Miller left home with $10 and told his grandfather he was going to rent a movie – but instead went to buy a bottle of vodka and hopped into a pickup truck that someone had left running outside a convenience store. Miller later crashed into a 19-year-old motorist, killing him.

Miller, whose father was not in his life and whose mother was addicted to drugs, lived with his grandfather. The fact that Miller had already committed a felony by stealing the truck he was driving weighed against him in the case. He went to trial as a juvenile with a court-appointed attorney and lost.

“The court is aware you had a sad childhood, but you are fortunate to have a grandfather who is so committed and loves you,” Boyd said during the sentencing. “I hope you will take advantage of the services (offered by the Texas Youth Commission) and turn your life around.”

And with that, Boyd gave Miller a 20-year term. He was paroled from a Texas Youth Commission facility in November 2008.

Miller got into trouble again in 2011, this time for running from police. He was sentenced to prison and won’t be up for parole again until 2017.

In Couch’s case, he had been drinking with friends on June 15 and had seven of them in his pickup that night when he lost control of his vehicle and plowed into a group of people helping a stranded motorist. Four people were killed and two teens riding in the back of Couch’s truck were critically injured.

Couch, like Miller, was not certified as an adult. But he admitted responsibility for four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

“Ethan, you are responsible for what you did, not your parents,” Boyd told the teen on Dec. 10 before explaining her decision. “The court is familiar with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (formerly the Texas Youth Commission) and has sent numerous teens to programs there, and sometimes they don’t even get into the program we designated for them.”

Couch got probation. Prosecutors had asked for 20 years in detention.

His parents offered to pay $450,000 per year for him to attend a private rehabilitation center in California.

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