FORT WORTH, Texas - A North 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.
Ethan Counch, 16, 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 Keller 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, killing Brian Jennings, a 43-year-old Burleson youth minister; Breanna Mitchell of Lillian, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21; and her 52-year-old mother, Hollie Boyles.
Boyd 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 near Newport Beach, Calif., 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 house 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.