Couch, now 20, was released from Tarrant County jail on Monday after serving two years, or 720 days, for a parole violation — not for the deaths of four people.
His release will close a chapter on the story of a teenager turned adult struggling with a bout of “affluenza” that his legal team claimed left him unable to tell right from wrong because of his family’s wealth. The case took a bizarre turn in 2015 after a video of Couch drinking, a violation of his probation, surfaced online and appeared to trigger an escape to Mexico with his mother.
The incident also prompted a national discussion about how privilege and money appear to bolster legal defenses beyond access to elite lawyers.
Couch’s return to society has angered the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has pushed for harsher penalties for drunk drivers who kill others.
“It was devastating to so many people” for Couch’s release date to arrive, MADD President Colleen Sheehey-Church told The Washington Post on Monday. “Seven-hundred and 20 days just shows you drunken driving homicides aren’t treated as violent crimes.”
Sheehey-Church, who lost her son in 2004 in a drunken driving incident, blasted Couch’s defense as a child unable to grasp his decision-making.
“It was violent, it was ugly, it was a choice that he made to get into this vehicle,” she said.
Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby, 21, had come out of their home to help motorist Breanna Mitchell, 24, after her sport-utility vehicle stalled on that June night in rural Burleson. Brian Jennings, a 41-year-old father of three, was passing by and also decided to help. He parked his truck nearby, his two sons waiting for him.
Couch, drunk, with traces of Valium in his blood and driving a truck filled with seven other teenagers, left the dark two-lane road and crashed into Mitchell’s vehicle. The collision killed Mitchell, the Boyleses and Jennings before slamming into Jennings’s truck, sending the vehicle into traffic. Body parts and wreckage were scattered for nearly 300 feet, D Magazine reported.
A responding Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy later said the scene “looked more like a plane crash than a car wreck.”
Several people were seriously injured, including Sergio Molina, who was riding in the back of Couch’s truck and was flung on impact. He is paralyzed and can communicate only through blinking. The involved families sued the Couch family and the family business; the Molina family won a $2 million settlement in 2014.
The widely panned “affluenza” defense of Couch surfaced during his trial, where a psychologist said the teenager received whatever he asked for as a child and was constantly rewarded with gifts, wreaking havoc on his ability to perceive the consequences of his actions.
“Instead of the Golden Rule, which was ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ [Couch] was taught we have the gold, we make the rules at the Couch household,” G. Dick Miller testified in court. He argued for substance abuse treatment rather than jail. Couch had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated.
The court appears to have agreed with the defense. A judge handed down a sentence of 10 years probation in 2013, and Couch was ordered to remain drug- and alcohol-free. He was also required to spend time in rehabilitation.
Then in December 2015, Couch was caught drinking in a video that appeared on Twitter. He and his mother, Tonya, fled to the lavish Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta, triggering a manhunt led by U.S. Marshals for his probation violation. Their location was revealed when they ordered a pizza at their condominium. A judge sentenced Couch to two years in prison.
Tonya Couch was booked Wednesday in the same county jail for failing a urine test mandated as a condition for her bond, which was revoked, the Associated Press reported. She awaits trial in connection with hindering the apprehension of a felon and money laundering in connection with the cross-border escape to Mexico with her son. She could not be reached for comment.
A statement provided to The Post by Couch’s attorneys stands in contrast to the testimony that Couch struggled to understand the ramifications of his behavior.
“Ethan has admitted his conduct, accepted responsibility for his actions and felt true remorse for the terrible consequences of those actions,” lawyers Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn said, adding that Couch “does not wish to draw attention to himself and requests privacy” as he focuses on his transition back to society.
“His actions drew the attention when he killed four people,” Sheehey-Church said in response.
A legal assistant to Brown did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
Couch’s release has galvanized MADD advocacy for tougher laws to help curb a crime that kills 10,000 people a year, Sheehey-Church said, including a MADD petition that was started in response to his completed sentence.
The idea, she said, is to keep focus on the larger epidemic.
“It’s bigger than Ethan Couch. It’s about our justice system.”