Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Affluenza Defense and the Crime of Being Poor

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

When San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor George Moscone and fellow city supervisor, Harvey Milk, his lawyers argued that White was not responsible for his actions due to depression.   The lawyers said that White’s shift in eating habits from healthy food to junk food, including Twinkies, was evidence of the depression.    Reporters quickly latched onto that rationale and labeled it the “Twinkie Defense.”  During the intervening three decades, “Twinkie Defense,” has developed into a derisive catchall phrase for off-the-wall defense strategies.

The most recent “Twinkie Defense” of note is a stratagem that is being referred to as “Affleunza.”  The case that has given birth to this new term involves a sixteen-year-old Texas boy who was drunk at the wheel of a pickup truck when he struck and killed four innocent bystanders.  The lad’s legal team and a psychologist argued that he was not responsible for his actions because his rich parents had always bought his way out of bad situations and he had never had to take personal responsibility for any of the messes he created. 

(One mess occurred when he was fifteen and ticketed by police for alcohol possession and having a passed-out, naked, fourteen-year-old girl in the truck with him.  His lawyers told the court that the parents had never punished their son over that incident.  Mother just paid the fine and life went on.)

In addition to the four deaths, nine other individuals were also injured including two teen males who were thrown from the back of his truck.  One of those boys suffered brain damage and was in a prolonged coma.   He is now paralyzed and has to use eye-blinks in order to communicate.

The fatality incident occurred in June of this year.  A group of seven young men, including the driver, stole two cases of beer from a local Wal-Mart and had been partying.  (The driver also had Valium in his system.)  They were on a run to procure more beer, doing 70 m.p.h down a stretch of country road that was meant to accommodate speeds not in excess of 40 m.p.h.    The young driver’s blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit – the legal limit for an adult.

A few minutes before the truckload of boys came barreling down that country road, a young woman’s car had broken down on the same road.  A good Samaritan stopped to help the young lady who was having the car trouble, and a mother and her grown daughter from a nearby house also stepped out to the road to assist.

It was a gathering of kind people helping a stranded motorist on a quiet Texas evening – quiet that is, until a truck carrying seven drunken teens roared onto the scene and plowed into the group.   At that moment families were destroyed, hearts were broken, and lives and futures were lost forever.

The young driver of the pickup truck, a boy who was still on probation from the other alcohol incident four months earlier, was arrested and then sent home with an ankle bracelet so that law enforcement could monitor his movements – in case he suddenly decided to move to Uruguay!    This week he appeared before a juvenile court judge.  The prosecutors asked for a twenty-year prison sentence.  The boy’s lawyers painted him as a victim of poor parenting, and suggested probation and placing him in an exclusive California rehab program for which the parents were willing to pay nearly half-a-million dollars.

The judge, fearing that the juvenile perpetrator would not get adequate therapy in jail, is considering the California treatment program where he would serve a minimum of two years and be denied contact with his parents.

The judge also sentenced the boy to ten years of probation – no jail time, but ten years of probation.

That decision, or lack thereof, has stirred up a storm of controversy with some folks being so brazen as to suggest that America has two justice systems, one of the rich and one for the rest of us.. 

Clearly, the judge failed at rendering a decision that truly served the best interest of this young man.  The judge accepted the argument that he was the victim of poor parenting and had never had to suffer consequences for his actions – and then she reinforced that bad parenting by again allowing him to essentially walk away from the havoc that he had wrought.

One is left to suspect that, like the case of George Zimmerman, this kid will be in the news again at some point.

The lesson has not been learned, and there is little chance that things will change substantively during the two-year vacation that the boy and his parents will have away from each other.

Parents have a great deal of responsibility for the actions of their children, whether they ultimately feel that is fair or not.  No one is born evil.   But blaming the parents is a somewhat circular defense because every parent had parents.

The judge had a difficult decision to make – one for which there was no easy answer.  A crime was committed, people suffered harm – and four people died, affluent parents reached for a checkbook every time their child misbehaved and protected him from ever having to face unpleasant consequences, and the whole world was watching.  There was no way to make a decision that would please everyone.  The judge opted to try and salvage the child.

Texas is usually known for it tough posturing.  It leads the nation in executions.  This decision almost appears to be at odds with the state psyche – but if the young drunken driver had been black or Hispanic or just plain poor, a different type of justice would have likely prevailed – one that would have been decisively more austere.

(One news report told of a case adjudicated by the same judge.  In that case a fourteen-year-old black youth had hit a man in the stomach and he fell down and died.  She sentenced that kid to ten years in prison.)

Poor kids don’t get sent to posh rehabs – by any state.  Perhaps that is the crime.

1 comment:

Xobekim said...

Decades ago, when I made a living in the land title business, a judge in a West Central Missouri county showed me a little book. "You know what this is? This is the book no judge wants his name in." It was a paper copy of opinions about to be published in the Southwest Reporter. The judge had made a ruling on an issue of law and was trying to see if an untrained person would see the wisdom of his decision.

Then the old judge drops a bomb on me. He says "the unwritten rule of law is that you always hang the ni**er while the rich never swing."

Seeing the harm done to youthful offenders I think all young persons should be treated by the juvenile justice system. It is obscene to charge children as adults when their minds really don't appreciate the consequences of their actions. We need to treat all of our kids as kids, and drop the "N" word, especially from the unwritten rules of law.