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 court hearing to determine whether his case gets transferred to the adult system, 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. 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 Friday, Judge Timothy Menikos sided with Couch’s attorneys and said Couch could stay at the juvenile center.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said her office would do everything it could to hold Couch accountable, but noted her office was limited because Couch was sentenced to only 10 years’ probation in the juvenile drunken-driving case. Prosecutors and law enforcement have long chastised the sentence as too weak.
Wilson urged the public not to “feed his ego with notoriety” or focus on the chances Couch “squandered,” but to instead focus on the victims of the wreck, which also severely injured two people.
“Behind every incident are the victims, and this should be their story,” Wilson said in a statement Friday.
During the sentencing phase of the 2013 trial, a defense witness argued Couch had been coddled into a sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents. The expert deemed the condition “affluenza,” which isn’t recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association and drew widespread derision.
Terms of Couch’s probation barred him from drinking or leaving Tarrant County. Couch was 16 at the time of the fatal accident, so the case is being handled for now in juvenile court.
Sheriff Dee Anderson said Thursday that he wanted Couch moved to an adult jail given his age and the severity of his offenses, saying: “He’s certainly capable of understanding now what’s going on, and I’d feel better if he was there.”
In December, Couch and his mother disappeared after an online video appeared to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. They 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 is charged in Texas with hindering the apprehension of a felon. She was released on bond this month after being fitted with an electronic ankle GPS monitor.
If Ethan Couch’s case is moved to adult court in Texas, 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, he could be held in a juvenile detention center for violating his probation until he turns 19 in April, at which point he would become eligible for parole.
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