Fort Worth

May 16, 2014

Judge to weigh decision on ‘affluenza’ testimony

Lawyers for Ethan Couch say the “affluenza” comments made by a psychologist during the criminal trial are confidential because the case involves a juvenile. Opposing lawyers say the remarks were widely reported, nullifying confidentiality.

A state district judge will decide whether lawyers can question the psychologist who used the term “affluenza” last year in the criminal trial of Ethan Couch.

Couch was sentenced to 10 years’ probation in December on four counts of intoxication manslaughter for a June 16 wreck north of Burleson that killed four people and injured 12. Lawsuits were filed by families whose relatives were either killed or injured, and all but one have been settled.

Lucas McConnell, 13, and his parents have requested a civil trial to force accountability on Couch, the parents said.

Judge R.H. Wallace heard arguments from Couch’s lawyers and McConnell’s legal team Friday. Wallace said he will consider the arguments and make a decision later.

Mike Yanof, one of Couch’s lawyers, said psychologist Dick Miller should not have to testify, arguing that it would violate attorney-client and doctor-patient privileges.

He said the protection is set out in the juvenile justice code of Texas to ensure that youths aren’t stigmatized by criminal proceedings and that they have a reasonable chance at rehabilitation.

“That trumps all of it,” Yanof said.

He told Wallace that allowing Miller to testify in the civil case would set a precedent that would affect juveniles in legal proceedings statewide.

Todd Clement, one of McConnell’s lawyers, has said that Miller’s testimony would repeat his assessment that Couch’s drunken actions leading to the wreck were the result of coddling by Couch’s wealthy parents — a phenomenon that Miller called “affluenza” in the criminal trial.

“Affluenza” was part of the defense strategy.

Clement said Friday that Miller also discussed Couch and “affluenza” in interviews with Jim Douglas of WFAA/Channel 8 and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

“Affluenza” became a household word as national news outlets reported on the case, and that media exposure nullifies any confidentiality, Clement said.

“They claim that since it happened in a juvenile court, it’s a little like it didn’t exist,” Clement said during the hearing. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in.”

Also during Friday’s hearing, Wallace denied a request from Clement to question Couch in depositions.

Clement said he wouldn’t argue against the denial because he respects the fact that Couch is being treated in lockdown addiction facility.

He is being treated at the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon, a state-operated mental health facility.

After the hearing, Clement said the “affluenza” testimony would be important, but not critical, to the case.

He said he can still depose Couch’s parents, Fred and Tonya Couch, to show that they knew their son was involved with drugs and alcohol and that they were negligent in letting him drive a pickup belonging to their family business.

The Ford F-350 was involved in the wreck.

Clement said he also hopes to depose Couch once he is out of the hospital.

He predicted that the case could go to trial in about a year.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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