'Affluenza' kills: White teen's light sentence exposes dark side of criminal justice system

OPINION - Last week, convicted on multiple counts of manslaughter and assault, 16-year-old Ethan Couch walked out of a Texas courtroom and into the public spotlight...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In January 1997, a 13-year-old black boy allegedly walked up to a man and shot him with rifle. Labeled a cold-blooded thug, Michael Lewis stood less than 5 feet tall when a judge handed down a life sentence in a Georgia courtroom.

Last week, convicted on multiple counts of manslaughter and assault, 16-year-old Ethan Couch walked out of a Texas courtroom and into the public spotlight. Unlike Michael, Ethan will not spend a day behind bars. Despite killing four innocent people and shattering the lives of countless others, he was given ten years probation and ordered into a private rehabilitation center at his parents’ expense.

Many believe, as I do, that the difference in sentencing demonstrates how irreparably flawed justice can be in this country.  Although their cases differ in a myriad of ways, all too often race and wealth dictate how much justice one can expect. For Ethan, justice it seems is as warm and comforting as that summer in night in Fort Worth. So unlike the relentlessly cold justice Michael encountered on a wintry night in Atlanta.

Both young boys: One white, one black. One rich, the other poor.

Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard, who had been just elected the first black district attorney in Georgia, decided to try Michael as an adult. “The age of criminal responsibility is 13,” prosecutors said of a then new Georgia law. “That’s what the legislature set for violent crimes.”

There was no psychiatric evaluation, no assessment to determine if the boy was competent to stand trial. His court-ordered public defender did not press for it, nor did the judge in the case find it necessary. Michael, known as “Little B,” had killed a hard-working father in front of his wife and children.

One look at his Atlanta public school records, where administrators admitted that he was enrolled for less than two years, would have revealed that Michael had an IQ well below average. His crack-addled mother “smoked up the water,” Michael would tell his defense attorneys. In fact, every dime of her welfare check went into the pipe.  Her three children, who never knew their fathers, subsisted in a roach-infested, lean-to house with no electricity, no running water or food. Michael, who was once placed in foster care, looked after his then-five-year-old sister Tavia under that failing roof. He got Ta-Ta dressed for school every day, where they ate free breakfast and lunch. His older brother was already a dope boy in-training.

Michael lived no other way, because frankly there was no one there to show him any other.

In time, J-Boy put his little brother to work. Together, they watched and bet on pit bull fights, smoked weed, and sold drugs. Young Michael was the “collector.” At 13, he frequented strip clubs and rode bikes with his young friends.  By the time he was 14, Michael was in a maximum-security adult facility.

Twenty-three-year-old Darrell Woods and his wife had gone to a convenience store for cold sodas that night; their two small children were in the backseat.  Bypassing a boulevard of other well-lit quick-marts and gas stations, they settled on one off the beaten path, one deep within “The Bluff,” one notorious for its open-air drug market.  Investigators were not in the least suspicious of their choice. At the time, no one questioned the story of an innocent stop for soft drinks.

Woods, according to prosecutors, was ordered by Michael to turn off his headlights — presumably to shield the spot from the prying eyes of law enforcement. Witnesses said that when Woods refused, Michael retrieved a gun from the side of the store, returned to the car and blew him away.

An informant fingered Michael for the brutal murder.

Deals were cut with known prison-evading drug-dealers and reward-collecting addicts, despite street talk that J-Boy and his friend Big E were behind the murder.  They believed, according to back fence talk, that they could hang the heinous crime on a hapless 13-year-old and he would get off with a little time in juvenile. “I saw that man that shot my daddy,” one of the Woods children said. The diminutive Michael, despite his troubled past, was anything but a man.

Questions about his guilt or innocence continue to haunt. But Michael had no one, no one with the financial wherewithal to step up to demand answers.

Evidence, including conflicting, now “lost” video taped statements, was suppressed. Blaring newspaper headlines fueled a mob-like, national hysteria and unchecked willingness to condemn black boys like Little B.  A columnist at The Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was my first editor, an early mentor and who is also black, made the unfortunate argument that the murder case was a “cautionary tale” of the catastrophic consequences the come with the breakdown of the black family. “Thirteen year olds [without fathers],” he said, “[are] out there gunning down real fathers— which the black community boasts so few of.”

AJC writer Elena Fernandez deemed Michael “an evil in our town.” He had, after all, made the first of 12 appearances in juvenile court for an assault charge when he was just ten years old. Woods, on the other hand, despite his own assault charges, was being heralded as a pillar of the community—a strong black father.  His wife, wracked with grief, miscarried their third child the same day Little B was arrested. Former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, father of a 13-year-old son of his own, chimed in with an additional $2,000 reward to compel more witnesses to come forward. A crack addict named Bertha, who was reportedly high when she testified, got the money. Woods had one working headlight but, under oath, Bertha said she was buying drugs in an empty lot across the street when she clearly saw Little B raise the rifle in the darkness.

Represented by incompetent counsel, raised by a ne’er-do-well, never-present mother in Atlanta’s most depressed neighborhood, marginalized and demonized by the very community sworn to protect him, Michael’s fate was sealed. The boy—who sociologists called a “super predator”– was quickly shackled, shuffled though the polished, thick wood-paneled door and largely forgotten.

It should be said that, by and large, Atlanta’s black community—rife with political and economic power– looked on in shame and shrugged.

Sixteen years later, in a courtroom some 800 miles away, Lady Justice sang a very different song.

On June 15th of this year Ethan Couch killed four innocent people.  That night, a 15-year-old Ethan and seven of his friends filled themselves up on two cases of beer stolen from a local Wal-Mart.

Pushing 70 miles per hour in a 40-mile zone, Ethan plowed his father’s purloined red Ford F-350 into a stranded motorist and three Good Samaritans. Twenty-four-year-old Breanna Mitchell, her friends Hollie and Shelby Boyles, and Brian Jennings, a local pastor who pulled over to help them, died that night. Two of Ethan’s friends were ejected from the back bed of the pick-up.  Both were critically injured. One of them, Sergio Molina, was paralyzed and cast into a vegetative state. When he emerged from a coma, he could communicate only by blinking his eyes.