FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Affluenza — it’s the one word that may have kept Ethan Couch out of jail. But now, several Texas lawmakers want to ban the controversial tactic from being used in court again.
Shaunna Jennings lost her husband in June 2013. Brian Jennings, a local pastor, had stopped on the side of the road to help change a tire when Couch lost control of his truck. “My hope and prayer is that she’s right, and that Ethan can be rehabilitated,” Jennings told CBS 11 News. “And my concern or fear, I guess, is that, if he isn’t, is that he could hurt more people this way.”
Couch pled guilty to drinking and driving that night, then causing a crash that killed four people, including Brian Jennings. Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to rehab and 10 years of probation.
During Couch’s sentencing phase of his trial, defense lawyers presented evidence of affluenza. “It seems like something made up to get somebody out of trouble,” Jennings added.
James White is a State Representative from southeast Texas. “It is a slap in the face of our criminal justice system,” White said.
White was the first to file a bill that would keep “affluent circumstances” out of the courtroom during sentencing. Since filing the bill in late November, two other state representatives have filed similar bills. “This is a bigger issue than just an affluenza defense?” investigative reporter Mireya Villarreal asked White.
“It’s about the fairness and integrity of our judicial system,” White noted.
White believes that the affluenza defense has contributed to people’s distrust of the judicial system. He believes that the system is not fair when a judge or a jury take into consideration “affluent circumstances” as a reason for committing a crime, but the same opportunity is not afforded to a defendant that may be poor. “Stop criminalizing someone because they’re poor. Stop the abuse, as exemplified by affluenza,” White added.
Attorney Regan Speers represents several of the victims in the civil cases against Couch and his family. She was in the courtroom when the word affluenza was first used. “It is a defense that they got creative on, that’s not supported by science,” Speers explained. “It is not peer reviewed. It is purely something that was made up and should have never been in the courtroom.”
Patricia Cummings was not a part of the criminal or civil cases against Couch, but she is a member of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. The organization is committed to fighting this bill. “In this particular case, where the whole controversy arose because of utterance of one word, affluent,” Cummings, Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association General Counsel, noted, “the outcome of all of this could be devastating.”
Cummings said that the bill would tie a defense’s hands by keeping essential information from a judge or jury that could explain why a defendant acted in a certain way.
The new legislative session starts in January 2015. The progression of this bill is hinged on committee support and a similar bill in the Texas Senate.
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