OPINION COLUMNS

I can’t be held responsible because I have affluenza and I ate too many Twinkies

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, January 16, 2016
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I’m late to the party, but I just recently heard about the Couch story unfolding in Fort Worth. Intrigued, I went online and looked it up.

I was immediately confronted with a word I’ve never heard before – “affluenza.”

I first thought it must be a new drug that they are arguing caused his problem.

Nope. The real story is far more interesting.

For those of you living under the rocks next to mine, a brief synopsis of the story follows:

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

A few years ago, a teenage boy in Tarrant County killed four people in a drunk-driving accident. His lawyers and an expert witness argued that the boy suffered from affluenza – a pseudo-psychological state where a person is unable to appreciate the consequences of his actions because he is raised in wealth with indulgent parents, thus always getting his way and never being held responsible. Because he was plagued by affluenza, his attorneys said he needed therapy and rehabilitation rather than a 20-year prison sentence.

The judge bought it, and the boy got 10 years probation.

Since then, he, with the aid of his mother, fled to Mexico and is spreading his affluenza there. The mom has been returned to the U.S. and is facing prosecution for helping him abscond. He is fighting his extradition. But who can blame him? He’s suffering from affluenza. The poor guy doesn’t know better.

Do you recall the “Twinkie defense?” That was the name given to the defense strategy in the case of Dan White, the guy who killed two people (Harvey Milk and the San Francisco mayor) in California in 1979.

The defense team claimed that, usually a fitness freak, White suffered from depression, and an overuse of sugar-laden foods caused a psychological break so that he was in an auto-pilot trance when he committed the homocides. Instead of murder, which requires premeditation, the jury believed the Twinkie defense and convicted him of voluntary manslaughter.

The same thing is going on here. Couch’s sentence was greatly reduced due to an arguably ridiculous, albeit creative, argument by his attorney.

To use the affluenza defense, you have to be rich. Is there a similar defense available for the impoverished defendant? I don’t know of one, but I suggest “pauperitis.”

Pauperitis is a condition where you cannot be held responsible for your actions because, having grown up in poverty and the lower classes, you have been degraded to such a degree that it has caused a psychological condition where you had no choice but to [insert illegal action here].

I think this defense has exactly as much merit as the affluenza defense. If a lack of boundaries and overprivilege can lead a young boy to fail to consider that his actions cause consequences, then so can an upbringing of neglect and squalor.

How, exactly, is the overprivileged youth less culpable than the troubled inner-city kid? We should let them all have probation. There’s no one, apparently, willing to teach the kids cause and effect, including the justice system. Maybe ordering them to therapy will help.

It’s unfortunate for the pauperitic defendant that the pauperitis defense will never catch on because in order to suffer from pauperitis, you must be poor.

Affluenza worked as an excuse because an expensive (and presumably good) defense attorney made the argument with a straight face, with the help of an expert witness, who probably also kept a straight face – all of which costs a lot of money. A defendant stricken with affluenza is far more likely to be able to afford these poker-faced advocates than the defendant with pauperitis.

So, the rich get off and the poor get the maximum sentence. That’s not new. The danger here is that the sucessful use of the affluenza defense takes that cynical truism and turns it into the rule of law.

Ever heard of precedent? Once some court somewhere finds the affluenza defense plausible, other attorneys in other cases will make reference to that case as supporting evidence for their use of the affluenza defense. The more cases that stack up as evidence of its legitimacy, the more legitimate it becomes. Voila. Precedent.

Precedent is a powerful force in the U.S. court system, and now we have precedent for walking into a court and saying, “Because he wasn’t taught that the rules apply to him, he doesn’t understand that the rules apply to him. So we shouldn’t apply the rules to him.” How ironic. He seems to be right that the rules don’t apply to him.

This whole thing is crazy. However, the international sensation aspect of it could be a sort of global punishment. When these people made their choices, they had no idea the story would spread and make headlines all over the world and (worse) the Internet.

Ethan Couch and his mom are in the dead center of the spotlight of the world’s judgment. And the world is not kind to those it finds in the wrong, especially on the Internet.

Also, it’s standard practice these days to do an Internet search on anyone applying for a job or even just someone who has entered your life. If this Couch guy ever reenters the normal world, he’ll have quite a Google problem to contend with.

Maybe karma is not as easily influenced by the idea of affluenza as the justice system.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger. She does not eat Twinkies and lacks the necessary criteria to suffer from affluenza.

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