Sometimes, a wildly similar crime can lead to outrageously different penalties — especially if the wrongdoer is a minority.
For instance, the infamous “affluenza” teen who killed four bystanders by drunkenly ramming his pickup truck into a crowd on the side of the road only received 10 years of probation. Yet a Mexican teen from the same area, whose drunken driving killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child, was sent to prison for 20 years.
Both teens were charged with identical counts of intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, but their trial outcomes were vastly different.
North Texas teen Ethan Couch lost control of his vehicle after he and his friends played beer pong and consumed alcohol they stole from Wal-Mart. The truck was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone before it veered into a crowd of people helping a stranded driver. The 2013 crash fatally injured the motorist, a youth minister and a mother and daughter who had stopped to help.
However, Couch’s case wasn’t moved to the adult system. He stayed in juvenile court where his psychologist and wealthy parents used a defense of “affluenza” — a made-up term used to argue that Couch's privileged, no consequences upbringing meant he's not responsible for his actions.
Meanwhile, Jaime Arellano, who was involved in a similar accident in his teen years, did not receive the same treatment. In 2007, the intoxicated teenager slammed his SUV into a Ford Mustang, killing 31-year-old pregnant woman Martha Mondragon and her unborn child. Her 6-year-old daughter, who flew out of her booster seat and through the car window, fortunately survived the accident.
In this instance, the East Texas prosecutors were quick to have Arellano's case moved to adult court, where he was presented with two options — a plea deal with 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury and the risk of 50 years in prison.
He took the plea since his parents, who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border two years before the crash, could not use “affluenza” to save him or pay hefty attorney fees.
“I know it was serious,” Arellano told the Associated Press, noting that he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”
Arellano’s mistake cost two innocent lives for which he is paying the price, but Couch killed twice as many people and got away with a slap on the wrist.
“Juveniles don't always commit what people think of as juvenile crimes,” said Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declining to comment on the “affluenza” teen’s case. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they're 16 years of age doesn't negate that.”
The Mexican teen has been in prison for nine years and becomes eligible for parole in 2017. If released, he expects to be deported to Mexico and work on a ranch, while Couch, who violated his probation and tried to run away, faces possible detention when he returns to court later this month.
Depending on the court’s ruling, he could either get three months in jail or adult probation, which could land him in prison for up to 40 years if violated. However, keeping his previous penalties in mind, he’s likely to get away with something a lot less harsh.
After all that has been said and written about America’s flawed criminal justice system, cases like these shouldn’t surprise anyone, but somehow they still do.