There is no doubt Ethan stole the beer, no doubt he was drunk and recklessly “joy-riding” in his father’s company truck, no doubt that he was unlicensed and behind the wheel when he mowed down four helpless people. In fact, young Ethan was so “torn down” that his blood alcohol registered at .24 — three times the legal limit — three hours after the accident. It was a wonder the teenager could walk and talk, let alone drive.
The facts of the case are replete with a tragic brand of mayhem that resulted in unspeakable carnage. Given the horrific facts of the incident, given the sheer level of human devastation inflicted, one would believe this to be an open-and-shut case. Ethan was convicted of four counts of intoxicated manslaughter and two counts of intoxicated assault. Prosecutors argued for and expected a sentence that matched the crime.
In various televised news reports, a neatly dressed, innocent-looking Ethan appears scrawny, barely filling out his button down shirt and khakis; his once long, blond hair nicely trimmed above the ears. He was not at all the imposing, muscle-bound creature snapping a “selfie” with his smartphone as seen in his Facebook profile.
That day in court, Ethan looked like America’s son.
During the sentencing phase, Ethan’s psychologist, Dick Miller, said his client suffers from “affluenza.” The junk-science diagnosis, used to describe a wealthy over-indulged child, was bought and paid for by his father. According to Miller, Ethan was the victim of overly permissive parents and had lost the capacity for responsible behavior. In short, he was spoiled. Too spoiled to tell right from wrong or understand the consequences of his actions. Ethan presciently told officers that night that his parents would take care of this.
He could not have been more right.
Rather than remand him to prison, Texas District Court Judge Jean Boyd ordered Ethan into a private counseling center. His parents, Fred and Tonya Couch, will pick-up the estimated $450,000 tab.
The victims’ families sat stunned, soaking in their own tears.
I cannot help but wonder what the outcome might have been if Michael Lewis’ mother had been wealthy. What if she had been able to purchase a “Dream Team” to defend her son? What if she had been able to buy the testimony of a psychologist — one who would describe how Michael was reared in a cesspool of poverty without meaningful supervision? One that would say, with a straight face, that Michael suffered from “broke-itis,” that he, too, had been “spoiled” by the utter deprivation inherent in his living conditions, by the urban wasteland on which he was raised. What if, instead of being a welfare-dependent crack fiend, his mother had owned a multi-million-dollar sheet metal company? What if she and her son had been white?
“What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times,” Dr. Suniya, a Columbia University psychologist and researcher who studies the cost of affluence in suburban communities, pointedly asked. “What is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?”
The record shows that same judge sentenced a 14-year-old African-American boy to ten years in juvenile for one death resulting from a punch. Clearly, the cases Boyd decided are not identical. However, they clearly illustrate the impact individual wealth—and race– has on our criminal justice system. The proportion of poor men of color on death row, as well as the percentage of those confined in general populations of county, state and federal prisons say less about their propensity for crime than it does about a justice system marred by wealth and privilege.
But Judge Boyd did not believe Ethan belongs there. Society, she decided, would be better served if he received private in-patient counseling. What if she had turned to that known and effective cure for Ethan’s strain of “affluenza?”
Boyd, who had previously announced her retirement and who refuses to speak publicly about the case, faces fervent calls for her resignation. Texas law allows current Governor Rick Perry to remove her from the bench with approval of two-thirds of Texas legislature.
Little B is 30 years old now, locked away at Jackson State Correctional Facility for Men—where Troy Davis was executed– and has lost a bevy of appeals. The Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the lying witnesses, the prosecutor’s flagrant, if not heinous, errors and the grossly inadequate defense, have both had their say.
In 2010, he led the nation’s largest system-wide inmate strike to protest poor living and working conditions in the Georgia correctional system. Using cellphones purchased from guards, the prisoners coordinated the strike amid widespread violence and brutality against the protestors.
Ethan is missing a warm dinner with his family tonight. He will miss his X-Box and all of the finer trappings of life. In time, though, he will emerge from therapy and likely inherit his portion of the Couch family fortune.
Michael has never seen an X-Box. He has never held a smartphone or had a Facebook account. Trapped in a drug-induced fog, his mother never baked a Thanksgiving ham or checked his homework. If his father is still out there, Michael has never met him.
Little B, who served his initial mandatory 14-year minimum, was denied parole in 2011. His minimum time served on the life sentence was revised to extend for five more years. After 19 years behind bars, he will be up for parole review again in 2016.
Due to his participation in the inmate strike, he has spent the last three years in solitary confinement.
Author’s Note: Elaine Brown, former Black Panther leader and community activist, has led the fight for a new trial and worked to secure Michael Lewis’ release. She had detailed the case in her book The Condemnation of Little B, published by Beacon Press. Today, she is theYouth Economic Development Coordinator with the office of Alameda County (Oakland), California and leads the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Fund.
Editor’s Note: This has been a #breakingBLACK column. Goldie Taylor is a featured Grio columnist and her #breakingBlack columns will regularly appear every Monday. Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag #BreakingBlack.