Thursday, February 6, 2014

Misplaced Mercy in Affluenza Case

Judges rarely strive for popularity.

Accuracy?  Hopefully.

Fairness?  Depends on who wins, and who loses.

But popularity?  Judges only try to be popular if they have to be elected.  And Texas state District Judge Jean Boyd has decided her current term on the bench will be her last.  She's not running for re-election.

So that explains why she doesn't seem to care if her most famous case has made her extremely unpopular.

Boyd's the judge who ruled in favor of the defense and sentenced Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old who killed four bystanders in a drunk driving wreck last summer, to ten years of probation.  Her ruling this past December elicited a firestorm of disbelief and criticism around the world, as a drunk driver got zero jail time after having killed four people and his defense argued that, basically, Couch is simply a spoiled brat.

"Affluenza," a psychological expert, hired by the Couch family, called it under oath.

Couch's father has experienced considerable success as owner of a sheet metal company, and his son was driving a company truck that fateful night.  Civil lawsuits are already starting to pile up against both the Couch parents, who at least one media outlet reports are now divorced, and the family's company, which has about 30 employees on the payroll.  So before this is all over, the family may be considerably less wealthy than they've been.

Let's just hope none of those employees have to give up their job in the financial fall-out faced by their boss.

Nevertheless, the rest of us keep coming back to the ten years of probation, with absolutely no type of jail time or juvenile hall or anything resembling incarceration.  Yesterday, both sides met again in Boyd's courtroom for a follow-up hearing, but the judge refused an additional request for her to consider stiffening her sentence.  She had mandated a stint in some sort of behavior modification facility, as part of a rehabilitation effort for young Ethan, since his own lawyers claimed his parents did a pathetic job raising him.  We learned yesterday that this rehabilitation facility is what's called a "residential lock-down" for drug abusers somewhere here in Texas, and not the resort-style California center the media initially speculated would be his temporary new home.  Nor is it apparently as extensive a program for helping Ethan cultivate a greater degree of humanity as was initially reported.  Basically, the judge just wants Ethan to dry out.

It's telling that several of these facilities were contacted about admitting Ethan, but few of them wanted to take him, considering all of the unflattering attention doing so would bring to them and their other patients.

For her part, Boyd maintains that a jail-type environment is not suitable for somebody as emotionally immature as Ethan.  That's why she didn't send him to one.  Which itself begs several questions, such as the degree of culpability, then, that his parents bear in all of this.  If they were the ones who were supposed to raise him according to some basic civic standards, and they didn't, why haven't they been arrested for endangering the welfare of a minor?  Parents have been taken from their kids for less heinous tragedies than the murder of four people on the side of the road by a drunken, high teenager.

As part of his decade of probation, Ethan isn't supposed to drink, drive, or do drugs.  That sounds pretty standard, if we're talking about a drunk driving charge.  And frankly, pretty tame.  Meanwhile, there's still so much more to this story that seems to be crying for some sort of justice, isn't there?  And that's what many of us, watching from the sidelines, simply can't square with what seems like such a light sentence.  In addition to the four deaths - FOUR deaths! - twelve other people were injured, and at least one of them will apparently be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

Doesn't it seem like the only person Judge Boyd is concerned about is Ethan?

One of Ethan's lawyers had the temerity to accuse the media of being "poison" in our criminal justice system.  Easy for them to say, although not very logical, since they've won their case every step of the way.  Except, of course, in the court of public opinion, which is where the media comes in.  Ethan's lawyers seem frustrated with their inability to spin this story to the general public in as successful a way as they did before Judge Boyd.  After all, Boyd's verdict is what counts.  Not ours.  Right?

Personally, since this is the sentence Ethan has received, regardless of how inappropriate I believe it to be, I still hope that Ethan can salvage some part of his still-young life through this whopping, profoundly generous second chance his judge has given him.  I regret that Ethan's victims are pretty much on their own to figure out some way of finding closure and moving on despite their losses, and that virtually everybody except Judge Boyd and the Couch family remain deeply suspicious that justice really hasn't been served here.

One of the victims who was killed, Brian Jennings, was a youth pastor at a popular church in exurban Fort Worth, in a city called Burleson.  We here in the Fort Worth - Dallas area haven't heard much in the media from the church since the verdict in December, or after yesterday's hearing.  Therefore, it's hard to tell the extent to which they're taking an opportunity of extending Christ's compassion to Ethan's victims, his family, and even Ethan himself.  After all, as incredulous as we may be with the judge's verdict, it's hard to deny that there aren't serious problems in the Couch family that are beyond the scope of conventional therapy programs.  We should all be praying that God can use this entire mess for His glory.

After all, justice is one thing.  Mercy is another.  Even if legally, it could be proved that Judge Boyd provided justice in Ethan's case, she arguably should not have provided, as a judge, as great a degree of mercy to Ethan that she did.  Although forgiveness is a virtue, it doesn't necessarily revoke the ramifications of our actions.  Mercy is when we get something better than what we deserve, and it's a poor precedent for a judge to be setting in a court of justice.

But even if Boyd threw the book at Ethan - and his family, it's entirely appropriate and Biblical that we still be merciful to them.  Our role as believers in Christ involves demonstrating the grace of God to people regardless of who they are, how rich they are, what they've done, or however lenient we think a judge has been towards them.  Courts of law should be a place for justice, but the Cross of Christ is the place of Mercy. 

Even if all we can do involves simply praying that somehow, in some way, God reveals His mercy to Ethan, his family, and his victims, in a way that supersedes the law.

Some residential lock-down clinic in Texas may help Ethan sober up.  But it's God's mercy that can heal him.

And us.

1 comment:

  1. People are outraged because innocent bystanders were harmed due to Ethan Couch's poor choices. Every citizen has a duty to behave in a manner that will not cause harm to fellow citizens. The dangers of intoxicated driving are not in dispute by people or the courts.

    What can we do? We can band together and demand harsher penalties and strict enforcement.

    We waste the time of our legislators and risk the lives of our police officers when the adjudication of laws and enforcement isn't taken seriously or carried out in the spirit and expectations of the people. We put every person at risk for needless and preventable injury and death by ignoring the inherent folly of intoxicated driving.

    My husband, a highly decorated soldier with nine deployments, was hit by an intoxicated driver in our front yard. She took his legs above the knees, broke his femurs, broke and dislocated his left arm, mangled his right arm and hand with an amputated thumb and later index finger. His survival is a miracle. The judge recommended two months in jail, which is less time than he spent confined to a hospital bed. Please read and share our story at if you feel moved to do so.

    The only way for judges to get serious about intoxicated driving is for the people to unite and demand it. Harsher penalties and tough enforcement send clear messages making people think harder and smarter before driving while intoxicated.


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