One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager drove a pickup truck into a crowd
of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.
Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.
The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.
Couch lost control as he drove his family’s truck back to a party. Authorities later estimated that he was going 112km/h in a 65km/h zone.
Prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza”.
Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.
Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.
Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done.”
Arellano and his family crossed the US-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of school.
Now 24, he spokeabout his case.
Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV on his way to a party.
Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang, according to police reports.
Martha Mondragon, who was nine months’ pregnant, was killed. Her six-year-old daughter flew through a car window. She was hospitalised and survived.
Prosecutors sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.
Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.
While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.
“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”
Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico.
Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on February 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.
Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.
Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.
Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.
But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offences “is probably more typical than we would think.”