FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) A Texas teen from an affluent family was sentenced to probation this week after he killed four pedestrians when he lost control of his speeding pickup truck while driving drunk, a punishment that outraged the victims’ families and left prosecutors disappointed.
The 16-year-old boy was sentenced Tuesday in a Fort Worth juvenile court to 10 years of probation after he confessed to intoxication manslaughter in the June 15 crash on a dark rural road.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 20 years in state custody for the teen, but his attorneys appealed to state District Judge Jean Boyd that the teenager needed rehabilitation not prison, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
If the boy continues to be cushioned by his family’s wealth, another tragedy is inevitable, prosecutor Richard Alpert said in court.
“There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here,” Alpert said.
Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to testimony during the trial. His pickup truck slammed into the four pedestrians, aged 21 to 52.
The judge said the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the kind of intensive therapy the teen could receive at a rehabilitation center in California that was suggested by his defense attorneys. The parents would pick up the tab for the center, at a cost of more than $450,000 a year for treatment.
Scott Brown, the boy’s lead defense attorney, said he could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence.
But instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.
Relatives of those killed in the accident drew little comfort from that assurance.
Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, said the family’s wealth helped the teen avoid incarceration.
“Money always seems to keep you out of trouble,” Boyles said. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”
Shaunna Jennings, the minister’s widow, said her family had forgiven the teen but believed a sterner punishment was needed.
“You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this,” she said. “My fear is that it will get you out of this.”
A psychologist called as an expert defense witness said the boy suffered from “affluenza,” growing up in a wealthy home where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce.
The father “does not have relationships, he takes hostages,” psychologist Gary Miller said, and the mother was indulgent. “Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it,” he said.
The term “affluenza” was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It’s since been used to describe a condition in which children, generally from richer families, have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Florida psychologist who does family wealth advising.
But Buffone said in a telephone interview Thursday that the term wasn’t meant to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.
“The simple term would be spoiled brat,” he said.
“Essentially what he (the judge) has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation,” Buffone said. “The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying … not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”
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