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Prosecutors: No appeal options in Texas wreck case

| Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, 9:48 p.m.

DALLAS — Prosecutors said on Monday that a North Texas teen's probation sentence for a drunken wreck that killed four pedestrians frustrates them, too, but they haven't found a way to seek a stiffer sentence.

The case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch has stirred outrage in Texas and nationally, with the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees for Texas governor ripping the sentence in recent days. Couch was driving in June with a blood alcohol level of 0.24 percent — three times the legal limit for an adult — when he rammed his pickup into a crowd of pedestrians in rural Tarrant County, killing four people and severely injuring two.

District Judge Jean Boyd gave Couch 10 years' probation last Tuesday during a sentencing hearing in which Couch's attorneys argued his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — an affliction one witness called “affluenza.” Prosecutors had asked for a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office in Tarrant County, which has been inundated with calls for action in the case, said that prosecutors frustrated by the sentence could not find any openings to an appeal.

Instead, McDonald said, the district attorney's office has been in discussions with at least one lawmaker about ways to change the law.

“We are exploring all options, but we are not aware of an avenue for appeal,” she said in an email. “However, we look forward to working with the next legislature to tighten up loopholes in the juvenile law.”

While neither Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott nor Democratic Texas Sen. Wendy Davis ruled out the chance of an appeal, both candidates for governor indicated they would consider ways to change the state's laws to prevent another such sentence.

“We're still reviewing options in this case,” Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said on Monday. “However, in addition to that review, we are exploring any and all legislative changes that may address the penalties and punishment for such crimes.”

Davis, who is a practicing lawyer, told Dallas television station WFAA over the weekend that “most certainly from a legislative perspective, we've got to look at the fact that judges are able to make decisions like that and determine whether we need to make some adjustments in the law.”

The Legislature's next regular session will convene in January 2015.

While defendants in Texas can typically appeal a judge's sentence, prosecutors typically cannot, said Jennifer Laurin, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Referring to the so-called “affluenza” defense, Laurin said: “Even if the judge relied on this kind of testimony, there's nothing in the law that makes it impermissible for the testimony to be heard or for it to be a factor in the sentencing.”

Jessica Weaver, a professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law, confirmed that under Texas' family code for juvenile offenses, prosecutors were limited in what they could do.

“Technically, only the child has the right to appeal,” Weaver said.

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