DALLAS – A Texas teenager who used an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck is facing nearly two years in jail.
The surprising sentence for Ethan Couch, who turned 19 on Monday, came Wednesday after prosecutors convinced state District Judge Wayne Salvant that he could give Couch 180 days for each of the four deaths in the June 2013 wreck. It was Couch's first appearance in adult court.
Couch was originally sentenced to 10 years' probation by a juvenile court. He landed in jail after he fled with his mother, Tonya, to Mexico when a video surfaced online showing Couch apparently at a party where alcohol was being served. Drinking alcohol is a violation of Couch's probation. The two were apprehended in Mexico in December and brought back to Texas in January.
Here's a look at Couch's case:
A SURPRISINGLY STIFF SENTENCE
Couch appeared in court in red jail scrubs Wednesday. He's been in custody since authorities returned him to Texas earlier this year.
Expectations before the hearing were that Couch wouldn't get more than a few months in jail before finishing the rest of his probation. Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney, had said Couch wouldn't face more than 120 days in jail as part of his probation being moved to the adult court, but that he could face decades in prison if he later violated his probation as an adult.
The hearing started more than an hour late. Soon after it began, Salvant said he wouldn't immediately decide whether to give Couch extra jail time. The judge told lawyers for both sides he wanted to hear more from them before making a decision.
Attorneys then argued over various motions before prosecutors stood to argue that Salvant could give Couch more jail time than they had indicated publicly, citing a different section of Texas code. Rather than 120 days in jail, prosecutors said Couch was eligible for jail sentences for each of four counts of intoxication manslaughter, to run consecutively.
Reagan Wynn, one of Couch's attorneys, argued strenuously against that claim, saying Couch was tried as a juvenile and not an adult, and therefore could not be punished as if he had committed an adult felony crime.
But Salvant sided with prosecutors and issued the sentence before ending the hearing.
Prosecutors refused to answer questions about the sentence after court, citing a gag order that Salvant explained at length during the hearing.
Couch lost control as he drove his family's pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and drank beer that some of them had stolen from a Wal-Mart. He veered into a crowd of people helping the driver of a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.
The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
Couch was found to have had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit for adult drivers.
State District Judge Jean Boyd gave Couch 10 years of probation, a sentence that outraged victims' relatives and prosecutors who had wanted prison time.
Further sparking outrage was the contention of a defense psychologist, Dr. Dick Miller, that Couch had been coddled into a dangerous sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents. Miller used the term "affluenza," which has stuck with the case ever since.
MOTHER FACING CHARGES
When the December video of Couch at a party surfaced online, authorities say Couch's mother, Tonya, arranged for the two of them to flee to Mexico.
They were found a few weeks later in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta. Ethan Couch appeared to have grown a beard and dyed his hair black.
Tonya Couch is charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon, with the possibility of two to 10 years in prison if convicted. She is currently under house arrest.
Salvant is also the judge in her case.
Prosecutors have not sought punishment for Couch for fleeing. Jordan, the spokeswoman for prosecutors, said they instead wanted Couch moved to the adult system to seek jail time there.
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