A Texas boy, 16, has received probation after pleading guilty to killing four people in a drunk-driving collision earlier this year. A psychologist who testified in the boy’s defense said he had been spoiled by his parents’ wealth and that he suffered from what he called “affluenza.”
Prosecutors said the boy was driving seven of his friends in his Ford F-350 on June 15 when the car collided with a group of people on the side of the road on the outskirts of Fort Worth. They were Breanna Mitchell of Lillian, Tex., whose car had broken down, Brian Jennings, and Hollie and Shelby Boyles, who had come to her assistance, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. All four were killed, and two passengers in the truck were critically injured.
The boy pleaded guilty last week to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated. He had been speeding, and had Valium and a high level of alcohol in his blood, according to testimony.
The Washington Post generally does not identify juvenile defendants unless they are charged as adults.
Prosecutors had asked that the boy be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Gary Miller, the psychologist who testified in his behalf, recommended counseling. Miller said that the boy had an unhealthy relationship with his wealthy parents, who used him as a tool and a hostage to extract concessions from each other.
Meanwhile, they neglected to teach Miller that dangerous behavior could have serious consequences, according to the psychologist.
“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” Miller said. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”
He used the term “affluenza,” which describes the ennui and depravity of certain very rich people, and which was popularized by psychologist Oliver James in a 2007 book by the same title. One reviewer found James’s critique of a materialist society to be convincing:
Affluenza, as defined by James, is clearly recognisable as our way of life. It spreads because it feeds on itself; when you try to make yourself feel better by buying a car, or bulking up in the gym, or spraying on a fake tan, or having a facelift, you actually make yourself feel worse, which makes you want to buy more things. . . .
He travels the world, interviewing rich, unhappy people. There is Sam, a New York billionaire who lives alone in a vast apartment. Sam was addicted to heroin, and now seems to be addicted to casual sex with young girls. He has, we are shown, pursued the goals of affluenza to their ultimate point. He can have anything he wants, but nothing satisfies him. James also meets the trophy wife of another fabulously rich man - she is addicted to shopping and cocaine, and he is often away from home. Their relationship is based on mutual contempt: she spends his money with vengeful spite; he pays her back with coldness and abuse.
The judge in the case, Jean Boyd, rejected the suggestion that the boy’s parents were ultimately responsible for his actions, and told him at his sentencing that he was at fault, according to WFAA.
Yet Boyd agreed that the defendant needs therapy and said that she feared he would not receive it from Texas’s juvenile system.
Members of the victims’ families were disappointed with the judge’s decision.
“You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this,” Brian Jennings’s wife Shaunna said, referring to the defendant. “My fear is that it will get you out of this.” She said she had forgiven him, but that she felt that the lenient punishment was nonetheless inappropriate.
If the defendant violates his probation, he could be incarcerated for 10 years.
The boy will be sent to a private home near Newport Beach, Calif. that offers intensive therapy. His parents will pay for the therapy, which can cost $450,000 a year or more.