ethan couch affluenza
Justice

Ethan Couch and ‘affluenza’: where is God in the absence of visible justice?

‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’ (Henry VI, Pt II, IVii).

Sure, I know. Some pernickety pedant with a literary bent is going to tell me that Shakespeare meant his now famous dictum as a compliment to the legal profession. Evidently, he thought that lawyers and judges instilled ‘justice in society’. The problem is that it’s not hard to find empirical validation for a more literal reading – even if it does have to be ever so slightly removed from context. Perhaps you didn’t hear, but Ethan Couch was released from jail a few months back. On the night of June 15th 2013, Ethan Couch drove a pick-up truck through a small gathering of people who had stopped to help a motorist with a disabled car. He killed four. He also seriously injured two friends who were ejected from the bed of his pickup. His blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit. But Ethan was the son of rich parents. Rich parents can hire high-priced lawyers. High-priced lawyers specialise in creating inventive ways to evade justice.

Ethan Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter. His lawyers, ever zealous in defence of their client’s interest, didn’t contest the obvious. Instead they sought to mitigate punishment by influencing the sentencing phase of the trial. Now pause for a moment and ask yourself a question. What would you do? Would you throw your client on the mercy of the court? Would you have your client openly admit responsibility and act contrite? Would you bring in character witnesses to tell the court that your client once fed a stray kitten? This is why you aren’t paid the Big Lawyer Bucks. A really clever lawyer will elicit testimony from a famous psychologist to say that it wasn’t poor Ethan’s fault. Ethan, you see, was a victim: he was a victim of ‘affluenza’. Let’s emphasize that word ‘victim’.

That’s when Dr. G. Dick Miller, a prominent psychologist hired as part of the defense legal team retained by Couch’s parents one day after the crash, reportedly testified that Couch was a product of “profoundly dysfunctional” parents who gave their son too much and never taught him the consequences of his actions. Dr. Miller used the term “affluenza” in describing Couch, and said he should be treated at a rehab facility instead of serving a jail term.

We’ll call it the ‘Spoiled Brat Rich Kid Defense’. And these lawyers elicited this testimony with a straight face. (I don’t know – they must teach ‘em that skill in law school.) The goal, after all, was to keep Ethan out of prison. A rehabilitation clinic was much preferable to 20 years confinement, and after all, Ethan was a victim.

I don’t know how much it cost them but the parents got their money’s worth from Ethan’s legal team. The judge bought this explanation/justification/excuse. She stood on the graves of four people and sentenced Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation plus confinement in a rehabilitation clinic. She must have thought he deserved a second chance – you know, because he was a victim. Oh, by the way, he subsequently violated his probation and fled to Mexico with his mother to evade prison for violating parole. There he was arrested, extradited, and sentenced to two years in jail. It’s a good thing he learned his lesson and got himself rehabilitated at that clinic, because he’s out of prison again. And his lawyer says, “Ethan has admitted his conduct, accepted responsibility for his actions, and felt true remorse for the terrible consequences of those actions.” I’m sure we all believe that.

Money purchased good lawyers, and good lawyers acted to create injustice – for it is manifestly obvious there was no justice in this case. But can you blame the defence lawyers for their actions? Only if you judge them by standards that can only exist outside the courtroom. They fulfilled their ethical responsibilities. They did what they were supposed to do. It’s not their concern that the prosecution didn’t put on a better case. They can’t be faulted for presenting an argument that persuaded the presiding judge. They simply did their job, and their job is important. They stand between a defendant and tyranny. Defence lawyers exist to force the state to prove its case. However, people outside the courtroom don’t think of all that. They only see four dead bodies and a killer who wasn’t punished for the sake of legal sophistry. They see nothing but a guilty rich kid who hired lawyers to find him a way out of punishment, and they wonder how these lawyers live with themselves. It’s a legitimate question. No doubt the sentence was celebrated with champagne, but privately and quietly, lest anyone see.

And yet… and yet the demands of the Christian faith are brutally hard on this point. When the divinely established instruments of temporal justice fail, we are left with no temporal recourse. We must submit. As it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ But that is not what we want to hear. Like Jonah, we would sit ourselves under a vine and wait to witness the destruction soon to be visited upon those who have wronged us. We would see it ourselves, and we would not permit God to show mercy. This is why we seek to exact vengeance ourselves, actually – the fear that God will not do so.

Do we in fact trust God to establish the best of all possible plans? Christians say this all the time, but do we stand upon it when we are confronted with four graves and a killer who receives no punishment? Do we believe that God works all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose, no matter what those things might be? Do we submit when a lawyer’s clever words and sophistries result in so great a miscarriage of justice? For this is what we are required to do. We are not permitted to extract from Ethan Couch the justice that courts refused to extract. More to the point, we are not allowed to shake our fist at God and say, “How dare you not establish justice for me here and now in front of my eyes!”

It is a common complaint, and one of the most commonly cited arguments against the existence of God: “Why is there injustice? Why doesn’t your good omnipotent omniscient god do something about it?” By which they mean: “Why doesn’t he do something about it here and know in front of my eyes and in a way that satisfies me by providing me what I desire?” There are, of course, two answers:

1. God has done something about it. The judgment of sin at the Cross is not a little thing, for there the wrath of God against sin was turned aside by a single sacrifice. Justice is not denied or delayed: it was exacted at a terrible price. Remember this, however: when we rage about the sins committed against us, we tend to forget the sins committed by us. We forget that others will sit under a vine and wait for destruction to be visited upon our lives. We cannot cling to the Cross while demanding that others be driven away from its footing.

2. God will do something about it. There is an end to all things, and with that end will come judgment. That judgment will be far more terrible and just than any punishment delivered by a judge in our courts. The fact that God has not delivered justice now on our timetable is not evidence that justice will never be delivered: God does not need our advice on how to administer it, nor is He bound by our desire to see it.

Both of these answers are bound up in the life of Ethan Couch. Where will he be in 10 years? Or 30? What is his life story? What will he believe at the end? What will be his final testimony? We can’t answer these questions because we were not there when God laid the foundations of the world. We do not know the end from the beginning. Like God said of the Ninevites: “Should I not pity Ethan Couch?” Is God not allowed to pity Ethan Couch because of the magnitude of his crimes? Is he only allowed to pity us?

In the absence of visible justice, we are left to trust in the Providence of God. Even when we stand in presence of four graves – of lives cut short, relationships severed, of grandchildren never conceived, expectations crushed, sorrows endured, lonely nights inflicted, and memories which torment – we are left with one hope, and one hope only: that God watches carefully to see that His word is fulfilled. He will not overlook so much as a single idle word. Every crime committed will be held to account – some at the Cross and some at the Judgment. At the end we will all see and declare that justice has be done in all things. And in that hope, we can rest.