Kendall Coffey on the “Affluenza Defense”

Kendall Coffey on News Nation with Tamron Hall


Author of Spinning the Law and NBC legal analyst Kendall Coffey appeared on News Nation with Tamron Hall on MSNBC on December 12th to discuss the trial of Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager that was sentenced to ten years probation after killing four people in a motor vehicle accident.  Transcript below:

Tamron Hall:  Welcome back, there is outrage today over the sentence given to a Texas teenager who killed four people while driving drunk.  A juvenile court judge sentenced Ethan Couch to ten years of probation but no jail time for the fatal crash that occurred over the summer. Prosecutors had asked for the maximum sentence of 20 years.  Couch’s defense attorneys blamed his rich parents for the boy’s behavior.  One defense witness, a psychologist, testified that Couch suffered something they referred to as “affluenza”, meaning that his parents’ permissive attitude made him think that he could get away with anything.  After the sentencing, Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in that crash had this reaction.


Eric Boyles Kendall Coffey
Eric Boyles on News Nation

Eric Boyles: Well Ethan has said, that he had a privileged life and money has always been there, and money always seems to keep Ethan out of trouble. This is one time I did ask the court for justice and for money not to prevail.  And ultimately, today, I felt like money did prevail.


Tamron Hall: Joining me now, former federal prosecutor and MSNBC legal analyst Kendall Coffey. Kendall, thanks for your time here.  We heard from Eric Boyles there, that money in his opinion prevailed.  The psychologist who testified as a defense witness, in addition to saying that Ethan Couch had affluenza, that the boy was brought up to never believe you apologize but instead you would give money as a substitute for even apologizing.  As a defense attorney with a very successful career, and success as a prosecutor as well, have you ever heard anything like this?


Kendall Coffey: Never. And as astonishing as this sentence is- no jail time, four dead, one paralyzed, driving under the influence of alcohol- not under the influence of affluenza.  This theory of a spoiled rich kid defense is truthfully appalling.  It turns everything in our justice system upside down. And if there is a condition such as affluenza, let me tell you what the treatment is.  The treatment is full accountability under the criminal justice system. No more, no less accountability that anybody else, including the prison time, if it’s deserved.


Tamron Hall: You’ve worked with a lot of judges, you know them. You were a federal prosecutor for years.  Kendall, what could this judge have been thinking here?


Kendall Coffey: Well the judge certainly had courage because she had to know this was an unpopular decision.  But the best I can determine is that her sole focus was

Kendall Coffey News Nation
Kendall Coffey on News Nation

rehabilitation.  What would be best for the defendant as opposed to fairness for the victims, whose losses were not truly respected and whose anguish was deepened.  Rehabilitation is a legitimate consideration in juvenile sentencing, but it’s not the only one.  There has to be accountability, there has to be respect for victims.


Tamron Hall: The obvious retort to that is, where is that sentiment when the child is poor?  When the person says, listen I grew up in a small town and I never met my father and I never had guidance so I turned to a life of crime. It’s being offered up to this individual, his parents even offered at one point, Kendall, to pay $450,000 a year to send him to a private facility for therapy to avoid a jail sentence.  After the sentencing, his defense attorney Scott Brown talked about the consequences, or lack there of, in Ethan’s life. Let’s listen.


Scott Brown: The consequences are that he is taken away from his family, he’s taken away from all the things that he’s been given.  He’s not going to have the truck to drive, he’s not going to have all the other things that he’s used to.  He’s not going to going to have his Xbox, he won’t have alcohol or drugs.  We are taking him away from his family and teaching him to be a responsible citizen, that’s a consequence.


Tamron Hall: He’s not going to have his Xbox. Your reaction to that.


Kendall Coffey: I’m grief stricken.  No Xbox? I’ll tell you how to keep someone if he needs to be somewhat removed from his parents- prison will do that.  And I want to come back to something you just mentioned.  What about a poor child who through no fault of his or her own is a victim of abuse, lives in a community that is fraught with peril, and makes some mistakes in life.  Does the system forgive you for that? There’s hardly any forgiveness at all. I’m sorry Tamron, but the contrast is just so dramatic, between rich and poor, as illustrated by this case.


Tamron Hall: Shawna Jennings, the widow of the minister, a minister was one of the people who died, said to Ethan, ‘you lived a life of  privilege and entitlement.  My prayer is that will not get you out of this.  My fear is that it will get you out of this.’ And it seems it did, but from the legal perspective, people often don’t have faith in the justice system, they believe that money can get you out of these things.  As someone who believes in the justice system, Kendall, how do you reconcile this?


Kendall Coffey: You just have to say that this hardly ever happens, but that isn’t quite so.  The truth is the rich can get the best lawyers, and that can make a difference.  And there are situations where that can make a difference.  This is an extreme example, Tamron, I don’t want you and your readers to think that this kind of things happens everyday.  But day in and day out, is better to be rich or better to be poor in the justice system? I think we all know the truth about that.


Tamron Hall: Well the families of the victims are suing the Couch family.  And we’ll see what happens with that part of the case. But this is absolutely unsettling. Thank you Kendall Coffey.