The Texas teenager who used an “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck must serve nearly two years in jail, a judge ordered Wednesday.
Ethan Couch, who turned 19 Monday, was making his first appearance in adult court.
Initially, state District Judge Wayne Salvant said he would not immediately rule on how much longer Couch would spend in Tarrant County jail. But he reconsidered his ruling after hearing an argument from prosecutors that Couch should be sentenced not to a maximum of 120 days in jail, but for 180 days for each of four counts of intoxication manslaughter under a separate part of Texas code.
The terms will be served consecutively. It was not clear if that would include the time Couch has already spent in jail.
A juvenile court judge originally sentenced Couch only to probation, angering the families of his victims and prosecutors who had pushed for detention time.
Further sparking outrage was the contention of a defense psychologist, Dr. Dick Miller, that Couch had been coddled into a dangerous sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents. Miller used the term “affluenza,” which has stuck with the case ever since.
Couch ended up in trouble again last year after a cellphone video showed him at what appeared to be a party with alcohol. Drinking alcohol is a violation of Couch’s probation. Shortly after the video surfaced, Couch and his mother, Tonya, fled to Mexico.
The two were apprehended in a Mexican resort city in December and sent back to the United States. Couch has been in custody since.
Couch lost control of his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and drank beer that some of them had stolen from a Wal-Mart. He veered into a crowd of people helping the driver of a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.
The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
Couch was found to have had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit for adult drivers.
It was not Couch’s first run-in with the law. At 15, Couch was given two citations after a police officer found him behind the wheel of a pickup truck next to a half-naked girl, with an open vodka bottle on the backseat floor.
“I spoke with him at some length about the various consequences of his driving and drinking,” a police officer wrote in a report, “such as effects on (his) driver’s license and his path in life, especially DWI and even killing someone in a DWI.”
Ethan’s father, Fred, runs a roofing and construction company and has faced lawsuits over a $100,000 debt and allegations of sexual harassment. Tonya Couch has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon for helping Ethan flee to Mexico.
Miller, the psychologist who suggested Couch had “affluenza,” blamed Couch’s parents at his sentencing for having “taught him a system that’s 180 degrees from rational. If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry. In that family, if you hurt someone, send some money.”
(Associated Press writers Reese Dunklin and Emily Schmall contributed to this report.)
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