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'Affluenza': Just the latest way to shirk responsibility [Commentary]

The story is causing national outrage: In Texas, a drunk driving 16-year-old named Ethan Couch (who had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit for an adult) killed four people and seriously injured two others with his Ford F-350 pickup truck. Mr. Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years probation and treatment by State District Judge Jean Boyd, who accepted the defense argument that the teen was suffering from "Affluenza." The make-shift diagnosis alleges Mr. Couch was a victim of the wealthy surroundings in which he was raised and therefore was unable to discern right from wrong.

The absurd verdict, exculpating Mr. Couch for his unconscionably irresponsible actions, has appalled a wide swath of Americans. Some focus on the judge's willingness to excuse such reckless behavior, others on the fact that a person is not being held accountable for the terrible consequences of drunk driving because of his wealth.

What few seem to realize is that the criminal justice system is full of seemingly inane exculpatory elements, and they are used prolifically. In felony cases throughout the country, one mitigating factor is the consideration of whether a crime was committed by a person suffering from "extreme mental or emotional disorder."

The entirety of insanity pleas — or "not criminally responsible" pleas, as they're called in Maryland —is an opportunity to escape responsibility.

Defenders of the insanity plea typically argue that only one quarter of 1 percent of those facing criminal charges successfully so plead, but that translates into thousands of cases of Couch-like evasions of punishment.

In 1997, a colleague and I interviewed Karl and Carol Reichardt, the parents of Kevin E. Reichardt, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who, two years earlier, had been shot and killed while simply riding his bike back from class. Wendell Williamson, his killer, was charged with murder and other crimes, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense argued that he was beset by "delusions," and one of the testifying mental health experts said her conclusion regarding Williamson's mental state was her "best guess."

In 1993, Elizabeth Maren Hutson, while innocently riding her bike in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was shot dead by the so-called "Shotgun Killer." He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, despite evidence that he carefully had planned to evade detection in this and other slayings.

You might say that these are only two cases and that they affect few people. But they are not so infrequent, and they affect the integrity of the criminal justice system. Moreover, when large numbers of people become outraged, such as by the successful insanity plea of John Hinckley in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, it can affect for a time the plea itself. As a result of that case, pleading insanity in the federal court system is no longer granted a presumption that must be overcome by the prosecution.

The appalling post-mortems in the Couch case by the defense's "expert witness," psychologist Dick Miller — in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, he first refused to acknowledge and then proceeded to agree that Mr. Couch had indeed "killed" four people — may have a temporary effect on the successful use of psychological mitigating factors nationwide. Mr. Miller conceded clumsily, and without realizing that he was inculpating the drunken driver, that "we used to call these people 'spoiled brats'" and that he "made the recommendation for [Mr. Couch's] interests."

The real villain in the Texan car-killing legal scandal is primarily State District Judge Boyd, who to this date has not explained her decision, nor could she. If enough people finally get angered, the freedom of irresponsible people to wreak havoc and/or end others' lives without being held legally responsible may be at least attenuated for a period of time.

Richard Vatz is a professor at Towson University, the psychology editor of USA Today Magazine and an editor of Current Psychology. His email is rvatz@towson.edu.


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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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