The teenager who killed four people while drunk at the wheel will get no additional jail time and be sent to an unknown rehab facility, a judge announced Wednesday in a ruling that's being met with criticism, KDFW Fox 4 in Dallas-Ft. Worth is reporting.
Ethan Couch, 16, had previously received 10 years of probation from Judge Jean Boyd for a drunken driving wreck that killed four people and seriously injured two more in June 2013. Boyd decided on a rehabilitation facility for Couch. While the facility was not named publicly, the judge selected a Texas center, not the $450,000-a-year California one the teen's parents had offered to send him to. It's also not known when Couch will begin rehab.
The sentence triggered a controversy in north Texas and across the United States, as did the testimony of a defense expert who said Couch's wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility. The expert termed the condition "affluenza." Prosecutors had asked Boyd to sentence him to 20 years in state custody.
After the hearing at Tarrant County juvenile court, family members of the victims expressed anger that the teenager didn't get any jail time, and said they believed Couch got off easily because his parents were rich.
"Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different," said Eric Broyles, whose wife and daughter were killed.
"No amount of money or prestige or status is ever gonna grant them immunity to what they all chose for their life that caused this to our lives," said Marla Mitchell, whose daughter Brianna was killed.
Sergio Molina was critically injured in the crash and suffered permanent brain damage. He is paralyzed and can communicate only by blinking.
Seven passengers were riding in Couch's truck. In addition to Molina, Solimon Mohmand suffered numerous broken bones and internal injuries.
According to the New York Daily News, the five families impacted by Couch’s drunken driving filed civil suits against the boy, his family and the family business — the parents of Molina are seeking $20 million.
Sergio's brother, Alexander Lemus, told reporters that rehab for Couch is not justice, and that there should be "repercussions and consequences for every choice you do, whether you're a juvenile or an adult." Lemus added that with this outcome, "That's not the case."
FOX 4 and five other North Texas media outlets filed a plea in intervention last week to keep hearings about the Couch case open, but the motion was denied.
Only immediate family members along with defense lawyers and prosecutors were allowed inside the courtroom. Members of the media, a spokesperson for the district attorney and civil lawyers of the victims were ordered out of the room ahead of the hearing.
"We believe that elected officials, public officials, what they do, the public needs to hear about," said Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Richard Alpert, upset about the decision by Judge Jean Boyd to close Wednesday's hearing to the public.
A guard stood in front of the courtroom door, which was locked from the inside.
Couch's attorney, Reagan Wynn, lauded Boyd for giving Couch probation and recognizing the possibility that he could be reformed better in a rehab facility that in prison. "We recognize that 16-year-old kids are different from 25-year-old adults," he said.
"She knows more about juvenile law and how to appropriately handle these cases than just about anybody in the state of Texas," Wynn added. "She heard all the evidence and she made what she thought was the appropriate disposition."
But it's that decision that has gotten Judge Boyd national attention and criticism.
An expert called by Couch's attorneys blamed his crime on what they called "affluenza," or the result of a wealthy, discipline-free upbringing.
Prosecutors didn't buy it.
"They thought that would help, that's my interpretation, and it blew up on 'em," said Alpert. "It was a stupid thing to say. It affected the credibility of that expert and it will follow that expert anywhere he testifies. It was a dumb idea."
Couch will stay at the rehab facility until the center determines he is fully rehabilitated, but there are conditions.
"He's not going to have contact with his family until the treatment facility he's sent to is going to determine it's appropriate," said Alpert. "He can't drive a motor vehicle. He can't have a driver's license. He can't use drugs. He can't run away from the facility. He's not allowed to drive along the area where this wreck occurred, that's a condition."
Asking Boyd to give Couch jail time for intoxication assault was a last-ditch effort by prosecutors, who have said they have almost no way to appeal the judge's sentence in the case.
Alpert said he hoped the Couch case would lead the Texas Legislature to allow juries to sentence some juvenile defendants. The case has already spurred calls for potential changes. Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who serves as president of the Senate, has asked for a study of sentencing guidelines in intoxication manslaughter cases.
Couch was 16 at the time of the accident. His blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit for an adult and there were traces of Valium in his system when he lost control of his pickup truck and plowed into a group of people helping a woman whose car had stalled..
The Associated Press contributed to this report.