FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The Texas teenager who used an “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck won’t be moved to an adult jail as he awaits a hearing to determine whether his case will be transferred to adult court, where he could face time behind bars, a judge ruled Friday.
Ethan Couch, 18, was booked into a juvenile detention facility in Fort Worth after he was deported from Mexico on Thursday. Authorities believe he and his mother fled the U.S. last month as Texas prosecutors investigated whether he violated his probation in the 2013 wreck that killed four people.
Prosecutors and the local sheriff wanted Couch moved to an adult jail. But during a brief hearing, Judge Timothy Menikos sided with Couch’s attorneys and said the teen would stay at the juvenile center until a Feb. 19 hearing.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said her office would do everything it could to hold Couch accountable, but noted she was limited because Couch was sentenced only to 10 years’ probation in 2013. The sentence came after a defense expert testified that Couch had been coddled into a sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents, calling the condition “affluenza.”
Wilson urged the public not to focus on Couch or “feed his ego with notoriety.”
“Behind every incident are the victims, and this should be their story,” she said in a statement Friday.
The then-16-year-old Couch had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit for adult drivers when he swerved off a road near Fort Worth and hit a disabled car, killing its driver and three people helping her.
Among the most severely injured survivors was Sergio Molina, who was paralyzed and can communicate only by blinking his eyes. He was in the bed of Couch’s truck, which was carrying eight people.
His brother, Alex Lemus, was at the Friday hearing and said Molina will attend Couch’s hearing in February.
“It’s very hard to deal with all the changes to Sergio, being in the state that he’s in,” Lemus said. “Yet it’s frustrating because we have to deal with the understanding (that) if my brother was the one driving the vehicle with all these victims, my mother really believes he would have gotten the death penalty in Texas.”
Tim McLaughlin, whose 15-year-old son was in the other vehicle but survived, said he also hopes Couch goes to jail because he needs “a wake-up call.” Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the wreck, was at the hearing but declined an interview request.
Couch’s attorney, Scott Brown, said that he doesn’t plan to fight transferring the case to adult court, though he wouldn’t detail what he planned to argue at the February hearing.
Couch and his mother disappeared in December, after an online video appeared to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. Terms of Couch’s probation barred him from drinking or leaving Tarrant County.
Mother and son were apprehended in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta on Dec. 28, after a call for pizza delivery tipped off authorities to their whereabouts.
Couch initially fought deportation, but he dropped the fight this week. His mother, Tonya Couch, was deported last month and charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon. She was released on bond after being fitted with an electronic ankle GPS monitor.
If Ethan Couch’s case is moved to adult court, the judge could order Couch to spend up to 120 days in jail as part of an adult sentence, and then finish the remainder of his 10-year probation, according to district attorney spokeswoman Samantha Jordan. If he violates his probation during that time, he could get up to 10 years in prison for each of the four people killed in the drunken-driving wreck.
If his case remains in juvenile court, prosecutors could ask for a separate hearing to determine whether Couch violated his probation. If a judge rules that he didn’t violate his terms, he would go free directly after the hearing and remain on probation until his sentence expires on his 19th birthday in April, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. If Couch is found to have violated probation, the judge could either sentence him to a state facility operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department or leave him on juvenile probation until he turns 19.
If Couch is sentenced to the state facility, a judge would hold another hearing before his birthday to determine whether to transfer him to adult prison for up to 10 years or to adult parole.