“Affluenza.” A term coined by mental health therapist Jessie O’Neill in her 1997 book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence,” meant virtually nothing to the American public only a week ago. However, recent testimony from a psychology expert witness has made the term the talk of coffee breaks, cocktail parties, and dinnertime debates. Because of this innovative legal defense, 16-year-old Ethan Couch will never have to spend a day in jail after killing four people and seriously wounding two others during a drunken joy ride over Father’s Day Weekend. The district attorney’s office reports that Couch’s blood alcohol content was 0.24, three times the legal limit even three hours after the crash. Couch “was driving along with seven people in his Ford F-350 truck, and they had reportedly stolen two cases of beer from a store.” The fateful crash was just the culmination of what may have been a typical weekend for Couch, spent partying with friends in his home, unsupervised.
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A psychology expert witness successfully persuaded a Texas juvenile court judge that the reckless teen was a product of his environment. Dr. Gary Dick Miller “argued that Couch was stricken with ‘affluenza’ — a psychosis of extreme wealth defined by an ‘if it feels good, do it’ ethos.” He noted that Couch had never been punished for his actions in the past, and had been given unbridled freedom by his parents. He concluded that the teen’s privileged, affluent upbringing obliterated his capacity to function as a morally rational human being. He states that he doesn’t “believe going to the penitentiary was best for [Couch] or the state of Texas.” Dr. Miller trusts “Couch’s life could be turned around with one to two years of treatment and no contact with his parents.”
The crux of Dr. Miller’s reasoning centers on the idea that when raised with a silver spoon, the lines between right and wrong become irreparably blurred. Much like the classic insanity defense, Dr. Miller explained that Couch’s upbringing prevented him from recognizing the severe consequences that could stem from his actions.
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Judge Jean Boyd ultimately agreed, noting that harsh sentencing for youths is often counter-productive, hindering their chances of meaningful rehabilitation. Now, courtesy of Dr. Miller’s expert witness testimony, Couch is spared from serving 20 years behind bars and will instead spend 10 years on probation, along with a one year-long stint in an in-patient treatment facility.
While Couch’s fate has raised a public outcry over inequality in the American criminal justice system, it has also shed light on the efficacy of expert witnesses in high-profile litigation. The affluenza defense highlights the strong influence and value a highly qualified expert witness brings to court. Testimony by psychology phenomena experts can shed light on the disorders and environments influencing an individual’s actions.
A criminal defense attorney owes a professional duty to her client to advocate for that client’s goals and objectives. In the case of Ethan Couch, retaining an eloquent psychology expert witness to verbalize a theory as to why wealthy young people act the way they do, was a successful means of achieving his goal—a chance to become a moral, contributing, member of society.