A Tarrant County district judge’s decision to sentence a 16-year-old who admitted blame in a drunk-driving crash that killed four and severely injured two others in June to probation has sparked outrage among some family members of the victims.
Ethan Couch faced a possible sentence of 20 years in prison on four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault in juvenile court. 323rd District Court Judge Jean Boyd instead sentenced him to 10 years probation.
Eric Broyles, whose wife Hollie and daughter Shelby were among the four killed in the wreck, told a local newspaper he believes money played a role in the sentence.
“Money always seems to keep [Couch] out of trouble. Ultimately today, I felt money did prevail,” Broyles said.
Marla Mitchell, whose daughter Breanna was also killed, told a local TV station she was mad at what she felt was too light of a sentence. She also said that Couch might think he has gotten away with something, but he will “be feeling the hand of God, definitely.”
The family of Burleson youth minister Brian Jennings, contacted through their representative Charlie Hodges on Wednesday, declined to comment. Jennings’ wife Shauna is reported to have told Couch in the courtroom that “we forgive you.” But Jennings’ family members have also said previously the teen should be punished for his actions.
Alex Lumas’ brother was paralyzed in the accident. He told reporters Tuesday that the sentence was “not right.”
Couch and a group of friends were drinking at his parents’ home on Burleson-Retta Road on June 15. They were caught on videotape earlier in the evening stealing beer from a Burleson Walmart and left the house again shortly before midnight to go to a store to purchase feminine hygiene products for one of the girls at the house.
Couch was driving a Ford F-350 pickup registered to his father’s company, Cleburne Metal Works, and had seven other teens with him, including two — Sergio Molina and Soliman Mohmand — riding in the bed of the pickup.
Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office investigators said that none of the teens were wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash.
Investigators have said evidence indicates that Couch was headed west, driving about 68-70 mph when, in the 1500 block of Burleson-Retta Road, he lost control and went off the road, striking an SUV parked in the ditch with a flat tire before hitting four people, throwing them 60 to 70 feet through the air and killing them. Mitchell had been driving the SUV west on Burleson-Retta when she had a blow-out. Holli and Shelby Boyles lived nearby and walked over to help, and Jennings was driving west, on his way home from his son’s graduation party when he, too, stopped to help Mitchell.
Couch’s truck hit Jennings’ Chevrolet Silverado, pushing it into the roadway where it hit an east-bound Volkswagen Beetle carrying two teenage Burleson girls. Jennings’ truck eventually came to rest off the south side of the roadway, and Couch’s Ford flipped upside down and landed against a tree.
Hollie and Shelby Boyles, Mitchell and Jennings were all pronounced dead at the scene. Couch and all seven teens in his truck were taken to area hospitals, with Molina and Mohmand the most critically injured. Two younger boys who were riding with Jennings and were sitting in his truck at the time of the accident were taken to Cook Children’s Medical Center but were not seriously injured. The two girls in the Volkswagen were not taken to the hospital.
Blood tests performed about three hours after the accident showed that Couch had a blood-alcohol content of .24, three times the legal limit of .08. Blood tests performed after the accident also indicated Couch had taken Valium at some point, according to some reports.
Couch admitted guilt on the charges on Dec. 4, the first day of his trial, and requested that Boyd decide his sentence. In testimony during the sentencing phase of the trial, Couch’s attorneys laid the blame for the teen’s behavior at his parents’ feet, saying that they had taken a “hands off” approach, that allowed their son to wander into alcoholism and drug abuse.
Dr. Gary Miller, a psychologist called by the defense to testify, said that Fred and Tonya Couch gave their son “freedoms no young person should have.” Miller said Ethan Couch and his family suffered from “affluenza,” thinking their money bought them privilege and that there was no link between their actions and any consequences.
Boyd said she was sentencing Ethan Couch to probation because she did not believe he would get the therapy he needs in jail. She issued the sentence after three days of testimony from witnesses, victims’ family members, investigators and treatment experts.
Defense attorneys asked that Ethan Couch be sent to a rehabilitation facility near Newport, Calif., that will cost about $450,000 a year. His father has agreed to pay the cost of the rehab facility. Boyd ordered that Ethan Couch remain in a juvenile detention center, instead of being released into his parents’ custody, until she decides where and how he will receive therapy. Defense attorneys have suggested that the teen not be allowed contact with his parents for as long as two years.
If Ethan Couch violates any condition of his probation over the next 10 years, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
The June accident was not the first time that Ethan Couch had been in trouble for drinking and driving. About four months earlier, in February, he was cited for minor in possession of alcohol and being a minor consuming alcohol after police in Lakeside, just northwest of Fort Worth, found him with a can of beer and a bottle of vodka.
The families of the four people killed in the accident and the families of Molina and Mohmand have all filed civil lawsuits against Ethan Couch, his parents and his father’s company.