By Tricia M. Derr
It was nearly midnight on June 15, 2013 in Burleson, Texas. Brianna, 24, was parked on the side of an unlit, narrow residential road with a flat tire talking to her mom on the phone. A few “good Samaritans,” including a young father/youth pastor and a mother/daughter pair stood by, offering assistance.
Hours earlier, “EC,” barely 16, was planning a night of drinking with friends. The teens, too young to purchase alcohol, had stolen beer from Wal-Mart. They headed over to EC’s parents’ unoccupied 4,000 square foot home. Unsupervised, the teens partied until nearly midnight when they decided to take EC’s father’s 10,000 lb. Ford F-350 out for a ride. Several kids rode along; two in the bed of the pickup.
Within a quarter mile, the pickup reached nearly 70 mph. Turning the corner, EC careened into Brianna and the other pedestrians, killing all four. The Ford F-350 hit four other vehicles and landed upside down in a tree. Nearly a dozen others were injured. One of them, a 15 year old boy riding in the bed of the truck, suffered extensive brain damage. Paralyzed, he now communicates by blinking his eyes.
Several hours after the crash, EC’s alcohol level was .24. He was in deep trouble. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time.
However, lucky for EC, he comes from a wealthy family who could afford to hire the best lawyers and experts to defend him. The defense theory? EC suffers from “affluenza.” He’s too privileged, spoiled and entitled to know the difference between right and wrong. Money had been substituted for parenting. Poor kid couldn’t help himself.
Yes, after a full hearing, EC was sentenced to probation (10 years) with no jail time. As an alternative to “real people jail,” EC’s father offered to send him to a private “therapy center” for a mere $450,000.00 per year. Offer accepted. EC is now at an undisclosed rehabilitation center becoming “unspoiled,” I guess.
Would the result have been different if EC had been poor -- or even just average? Would it have been different if his parents couldn’t afford rehab? Months earlier, the same judge ordered a 14 year-old black teen to 10 years in prison for punching a man who later died from related complications. Would race have made a difference?
Of course, there are two or more sides to any story, and this case is the subject of much controversy. However, there is a bigger point to make. What is our obligation -- as defenders of justice, champions of fairness, and advocates of equity – to ensure that the answers to the questions above are all “no?” Not so much because we want EC to go to jail or receive a harsher sentence; but because we want all people to have equal rights and “Access to Justice.”
Programs like Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Council for Children’s Rights are pathways to equity. These groups are opportunities for each of us to make a difference. Defending rights and providing “Access to Justice” come in many forms. Volunteer hours are appreciated. However, funding is the biggest challenge.
Does the story of EC make you mad? Sad? Suspicious? If so, do something. Support the Access to Justice Campaign. Volunteer your time. Attend the fundraising events for each of these organizations. Support “the leading voice for children” in our community. A small sacrifice from each of us collectively – even as little skipping one night of eating out to send a small contribution – adds up substantially. As lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to provide support to those who are traditionally underserved and those who deserve equal “Access to Justice” and “Justice for All.”
I hope to see all of you at the “Justice for All Luncheon” at the Westin on March 25, 2014!