Don’t let ‘affluenza’ allow wealthy to escape consequences, says former sufferer

By Travis Gettys
Friday, July 18, 2014 12:52 EDT
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Mark Herm
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“Affluenza” is a real thing, experts say, but it shouldn’t exempt the wealthy from accountability.

Professional poker player Mark Herm told WTXF-TV that he can relate to Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager sentenced to 10 years on probation for causing a drunken driving crash that killed four people.

Herm, who gave up drinking several years ago, said he was making up to $400,000 a year playing online poker at 20 years old, and the money made him arrogant and gave him an unearned sense of privilege.

“I just thought it was untouchable, and I didn’t go to school, I was just like, ‘I’m so much smarter than everyone,’” Herm said. “I kind of just set up my own map of what was important and what isn’t, and since I had more money than these people, I was better than them.”

The teen’s attorneys never denied Couch was drinking underage or driving the pickup that caused the crash, but a psychologist testified that his parents should be held responsible because their wealth and volatile relationship prevented him from learning basic lessons on proper behavior.

The diagnosis – and the sentence based on that conclusion – provoked outrage, but Herm said it can cause irresponsible behavior.

“I was drunk driving probably 100 times in my life,” Herm said. “I could have very easily killed someone, and it was just luck I never did. Like, I just did not care – I really don’t know what it is, just being a teenager. It sounds kind of crazy, but I kind of sympathize with him.”

Even so, Herm doesn’t think affluenza should be used as a criminal defense – and neither does a physician specializing in behavioral health issues.

“At this point in time, it is not a recognized disease process,” said Dr. Karen Abrams. “(But) they don’t have the same level of fear because they think their money can maybe get them out of a bad situation.”

She agrees that wealth and privilege can influence poor decision-making, but Abrams said those patients should be treated for other, underlying issues.

Two of Couch’s friends who were badly injured in the crash, as well as the other victims’ families, have reached settlements with the teen’s family, but an attorney for one of his victims plans to use affluenza against Couch’s family in another lawsuit.

“It’s the classic having your cake and eating it, too,” said attorney Todd Clement. “The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no way to get it back in.”

Abrams said the affluenza defense is another symptom of wealth inequality.

“It’s a problem in our society, that not everybody going to the table with the same facts is going to end up with the same result,” the physician said.

While wealth and power allows some defendants to avoid punishment, one Pennsylvania prosecutor says privilege can sometimes work against the wealthy when judges consider sentencing.

“They’ve had many advantages and have chosen to go down that path,” said Kevin Steele, Montgomery County prosecutor.

Herm said he’s grown as a person, thanks to sobriety and more perspective as he’s matured.

“It’s not that I was trying to be good, I was just trying to be better – and the way to do that is to be good to people,” he said.

Watch this video report posted online by WTXF-TV:

FOX 29 News Philadelphia | WTXF-TV

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