Editor’s note: The Star-Telegram first published this story on Dec. 22, 2013, less than two weeks after Ethan Couch had been sentenced to 10 years’ probation. This version has been slightly re-edited.
The night of Feb. 13, 2004, Eric Bradlee Miller coaxed $10 out of his grandfather, saying he was going to rent a movie.
Miller, then 16, instead bought vodka, got drunk and stole a pickup at a convenience store. With the lights turned off, he sped away.
Soon after, near River Oaks, Miller crashed into a 19-year-old husband and father, Philip Andress, killing him.
Miller, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.11 — the presumption of guilt starts at 0.08 — was arrested on charges of murder and failure to stop and render aid.
Because Miller was a juvenile, his case went before state District Judge Jean Boyd. Prosecutors with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office asked Boyd to certify Miller as an adult; she declined.
He was granted a jury trial, and jurors found him guilty.
Boyd sentenced Miller, a troubled teen whose mother was a drug addict and who was being raised by his grandfather, to 20 years behind bars.
“The court is aware you had a sad childhood, but you are fortunate to have a grandfather who is so committed and loves you,” Boyd told Miller during the sentencing. “... I hope you will take advantage of the services [offered by the Texas Youth Commission] and turn your life around.”
More than nine years later, on the night of June 15, 2013, another 16-year-old, Ethan Couch, got drunk and was speeding down a rural road in south Tarrant County when he crashed his pickup into an accident scene, setting off a chain of collisions that killed four people and injured 12.
Couch, who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.24, also went before Boyd.
He admitted responsibility — the adult equivalent of pleading guilty — to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.
On Dec. 10, 2013, Boyd sentenced Couch, described in testimony as a spoiled teen from a dysfunctional but wealthy family, to 10 years’ probation and intensive therapy.
“Ethan, you are responsible for what you did, not your parents,” Boyd told the teen, before explaining her decision. “The court is familiar with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department [formerly the Texas Youth Commission] and has sent numerous teens to programs there, and sometimes they don’t even get into the program we designated for them.”
Couch’s sentencing went viral. Boyd, a veteran jurist, was sharply criticized on social media and national talk shows for the probation sentence.
The notion quickly took hold that the teen got off easy because his parents had money and could pay for his expensive therapy at a rehab facility in California.
The uproar prompted the Star-Telegram to look for similar cases heard by Boyd over the years, including the sentencing of Miller.
Although the Miller and Couch cases share similarities and demonstrate the latitude a judge has in sentencing, legal experts say it’s difficult to draw comparisons because of the confidentiality surrounding juvenile records. Each case is decided on its own merits and no two cases are alike, cautioned Huyen Pham, a criminal law professor at Texas A&M Law School.
One difference in the Miller case is that he committed a felony when stealing the pickup. Under the Texas Penal Code, a person can be charged with murder if while committing a felony he or she also performs an act clearly dangerous to human life and causes the death of another person.
“If you’re committing a felony and you murder someone, that’s a lot more serious,” Pham said. “It allows the prosecution to substitute intent.”
But to Tina Guerra, Andress’ widow, neither sentence was tough enough.
“I feel like they both got off easy,” she said.
A tough upbringing
Miller grew up in a broken home in River Oaks and was raised primarily by his grandfather Donald Chaffin, now 84.
Chaffin said that at the time of the crash he was supporting Miller, another grandson, his daughter and her boyfriend. All lived in Chaffin’s modest home in River Oaks.
Money was tight, he said.
According to testimony at his trial, Milller’s father was nowhere to be found, his mother was addicted to drugs, and he suffered from behavioral and psychological problems including depression and bipolar disorder.
Miller had been kicked out of treatment centers and rejected his grandfather’s attempts to get him help, prosecutors argued.
Although he knew that his grandson was going through a tough time, “I had no idea he had been drinking that badly,” Chaffin said.
The night of the crash, Chaffin gave Miller $10.
“He told me he wanted to rent a movie,” Chaffin said. “He took the $10 and went and bought a bottle of vodka.”
Miller got drunk and ended up at a convenience store near Castleberry High School. Someone in the store had a pickup running, and Miller jumped in and took off.
About 11:30 p.m., as Andress was turning off White Settlement Road, the stolen pickup slammed into Andress’ car. Miller ran and then tried to blame the crash on another teen, according to police.
Three days later, Philip Andress’ only son, Caleb Andress, had his first birthday.
Not certified as an adult
With his grandson arrested and facing felony charges, Chaffin said, he tried to hire an attorney but didn’t have the $10,000 to $15,000 to retain legal help. Instead, the family used a court-appointed attorney, Richard Gladstone.
Soon after he was charged, prosecutors said they would seek to have Miller certified as an adult.
“When you are 16 and steal a car and kill someone and then you have had alcohol and marijuana and ... in addition to causing someone’s death, you falsely accuse someone else, that certainly shows sophistication and maturity to be handled as an adult,” prosecuting attorney Jay Lapham said at the certification hearing in May 2004.
Gladstone argued that Miller had no real criminal history and had displayed exemplary behavior while in juvenile detention. He said he would be better served in the juvenile system, where the focus is on rehabilitation.
After nearly four hours of testimony, Boyd ruled that Miller would be prosecuted as a juvenile.
Andress’ father, Robert Andress, was visibly upset.
“I don’t like it at all,” he said after the hearing. “The guy committed several felonies. He was drunk and stole a vehicle. The only place I can go and visit my son is at the graveyard.”
Prosecutors sought a 40-year sentence; after a three-hour sentencing hearing June 11, 2004, Boyd gave Miller 20 years. Under sentencing guidelines, Miller would serve the first part of his sentence in the Texas Youth Commission and after his time there — and depending on his progress during rehabilitation — could be paroled under the state’s supervision or sent to adult prison.
Miller was confined in a Texas Youth Commission facility from June 11, 2004, until he was paroled Nov. 13, 2008, according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman.
He was allowed to remain in the youth commission beyond age 19 because the law then allowed juveniles to stay until age 21. The law was changed in 2007 in an effort to reduce the number of offenders housed in state facilities.
Miller worked full time as a printer after his release, and his grandfather said he was turning his life around.
Chase, then prison
But Miller found trouble again on Aug. 30, 2011.
He was driving his pickup when he caught the attention of River Oaks police officer E. Perkins, who was looking for a similar vehicle being used in a rash of burglaries in the area, according to police.
Knowing that he had unpaid traffic tickets, Miller sped away from Perkins on Churchill Street, not far from where he had killed Andress.
Miller eventually abandoned his pickup and was apprehended while trying to run away, said Christopher Spieldenner, River Oaks deputy police chief.
“The chase lasted long enough to where it involved almost everyone who was on duty at the time,” Spieldenner said in 2013.
Miller was arrested on a charge of evading arrest and detention and was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty. Additional years were added to his sentence — stemming from the murder conviction — because his parole was revoked, according to court records.
Miller, who is in the Smith Unit in Lamesa, south of Lubbock, has a projected release date of March 15, 2027. He is eligible for parole March 14, 2017, according to records at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The ‘affluenza’ debate
Couch had been partying with friends the night of June 15 when he decided to take a friend to the store, although other friends urged him not to drive.
With seven passengers in his Ford F-350 pickup, the drunken Couch was speeding down Burleson-Retta Road in when he came on a group of people trying to help a stranded motorist.
Killed were Breanna Mitchell, 24, of Lillian, whose car had broken down; Hollie Boyles, 52, and Shelby Boyles, 21, who lived nearby and had come outside to help Mitchell; and Burleson youth minister Brian Jennings, 41, a passer-by who had also stopped to help.
Couch, who also had traces of Valium in his system, was arrested.
Prosecutors chose to seek a determinate sentence and to try Couch as a juvenile.
That meant that Couch could start a prison sentence in a youth facility and, after age 19, complete it in an adult prison.
Prosecutors asked for Couch to be sentenced to 20 years in a state lockup, but defense attorneys argued that he would be better served in a rehabilitation facility.
During the trial, defense attorneys said Couch came from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. One of the defense witnesses, a psychologist, suggested that the teen was a victim of “affluenza, “ or a mental state of irresponsible and reckless behavior brought on by wealth.
“What Ethan needed was structure and love,” said Scott Brown, an attorney who represented Couch at trial. “What he got was stuff. Don’t reward Ethan because his father has a successful business. But don’t punish Ethan because his father has money.
“People look at the carnage and say, no, he has to be locked up for 15 or 20 years. That’s not justice. That’s vengeance.”
Couch’s parents, who are divorced, offered to pay more than $450,000 a year for their son’s rehabilitation at a privately owned facility in Orange County, Calif.
Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and a daughter in the crash, said “money always seems to keep [the teen] out of trouble.”
‘You get a trial tax’
Prosecutors expressed disappointment with Couch’s sentence and officials with Boyd’s court said it would be an ethical breach for the judge to speak on any case that she had adjudicated.
Boyd has since retired.
Jimmy Ardoin, a criminal attorney with offices in Dallas and Houston, said a suspect who admits guilt, such as Couch, may be judged more favorably than the one who fights his charge, such as Miller.
Ardoin said that might not have been a major factor in either the Miller or Couch case, but it should be part of the discussion.
“You get a ‘trial tax.’ It’s a common phrase among lawyers,” Ardoin said. “When you contest the case, it factors into the way that judges view the case.
“If you go to trial, you’re not going to get as lenient a sentence as you would if you had pleaded guilty. It makes a huge difference in the federal system, but it happens in the state system as well.”
Pham, however, said many other factors come into play when sentencing juveniles, including whether the defendant shows remorse, had substance-abuse problems or experienced other extenuating circumstances.
Staff researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
The case against Ethan Couch
▪ Ethan Couch, 18, and his mother, Tonya Couch, were taken into custody last week in Mexico, where authorities believe they fled in November as Tarrant County prosecutors investigated whether Ethan had violated his probation.
▪ Ethan Couch was transferred Thursday to an immigration detention center in Mexico City where he will likely spend weeks as he appeals deportation. If his appeal is unsuccessful, he will be deported back to Texas and be held in a county facility until a probation violation hearing Jan. 19.
▪ Tonya Couch was deported and is jailed in Los Angeles. She has been charged with hindering apprehension of a felon and has a court hearing Tuesday in Los Angeles. Her attorneys have said she has done nothing illegal and hopes to return to Texas as soon as possible.