What a week in Texas drunk driving history! As many express reactions from disbelief to outrage over the sentence of 10 years’ probation assessed Tuesday in a Fort Worth courtroom for 16-year-old Ethan Couch who killed four people while driving drunk, this development seems in step as the next day, San Antonio visiting Judge David Peeples ruled Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg should remain in her position as the county’s top felony prosecutor which includes oversight of the state’s Public Integrity Unit.
Court records show Ethan Couch had a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, more than three times the legal limit for an adult, when he slammed into four people who’d stopped to assist a stranded motorist June 15 alongside a narrow Tarrant County road.
All four pedestrians were killed, including a mother and daughter, and two of Couch’s friends were thrown from his pickup and severely injured.
Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down, was killed, along with two neighbors, Hollie and Shelby Boyles, who lived nearby and came out to help, and youth minister Brian Jennings, who stopped to assist.
Solimon Mohmand broke numerous bones and suffered internal injuries, and Sergio Molina was paralyzed and can communicate only by blinking his eyes.
Couch and his friends had stolen beer from a nearby Wal-Mart store before the crash, prosecutors said.
The teen’s attorneys never denied that Couch was driving the pickup or that he’d been drinking underage, but they argued that his parents should be held responsible for their son’s actions because of the way they’d raised him.
In case you’re worrying over where 16-year-old Ethan Couch has been since last summer, when he got fall-down drunk and killed four people in a gruesome drunken-driving wreck, set your mind at ease.
He has been staying at an exceptionally pleasant campus-style residential counseling center near Newport Beach, Calif. It specializes in chef-prepared meals, equine therapy, martial-arts training, yoga and nature hikes.
It’s described as a “respectful recovery environment” where teenagers can get the “unconditional love they need to heal.”
According to Couch’s lawyers and, apparently, to the judge who sentenced him this week, the Keller teen needs healing because he is the tragic survivor of a bad upbringing.
Well, it’s not as if we’ve never heard this particular hail-Mary, go-for-broke defense before. My client had a bad home life, his dysfunctional family neglected him, he practically had to raise himself. Please, your honor, he’s a victim, too.
It’s pretty much the same last-ditch effort to beg the court’s mercy on an undeniably guilty perpetrator that we’ve seen a thousand times.
Except that in those other thousand cases, the perps were poor kids from rough neighborhoods. They went to the penitentiary because the judge didn’t buy the blame-it-on-the-folks defense.
Couch’s defense argument was pretty much the same, except that his family is wealthy, he’s accustomed to suburban affluence, and he’s headed back to rich-kid rehab because the judge snapped it up like bait on a hook.
Of course as State District Judge Jean Boyd looks toward retirement with her term’s 2014 expiration, she is also considering if Couch should be returned to his prior California rehab facility.
Then there’s the Lehmberg case.
Lehmberg was arrested on April 12 for drunk driving. Her Blood Alcohol Level was reportedly nearly three times the legal limit. Shortly after her April arrest, Lehmberg entered a guilty plea to intoxication and an open container violation. She was then sentenced to 45 days in jail with her license suspended for 180 days. Credit for good behavior allowed Lehmberg’s release after serving half the time.
During the same time frame, legal action was initiated seeking to remove the DA from office based on an obscure, rarely used Texas law allowing removal for intoxication “on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.” After several months of legal wrangling, that trial took place this week.
The prosecution, conducted by the Travis County Attorney’s office, presented a series of witnesses who included the various law enforcement officers who came in contact with the district attorney at the time of her arrest and at the Travis County jail.
Like Couch, Lehmberg also spent time in a treatment facility after her arrest. Lehmberg’s was Sierra Tucson in Arizona. Personnel from that facility testified as to her initial condition and progress during the stay.
Any evidence or questioning of events prior to Lehmberg’s November 2012 election were disallowed thanks to the Forgiveness Doctrine, a little-known – at least to the public – Texas statute that serves as a legal loophole to provide incumbent county officials, upon re-election, a “clean slate” with regard to acts of misconduct.
Lehmberg also took the stand and her own description of her arrest night’s drinking was particularly interesting.
From an Austin American-Stateman recap:
On the second day of her civil trial, she was solemn and reserved, admitting multiple times that her behavior toward the sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers who booked her into Travis County Jail “had been totally inappropriate.” In response to questions from state lawyers, she also gave the first public and detailed account about the events that have led to the case seeking to oust her from office.
Lehmberg said she left work about 4:30 p.m. on April 12 because she had wanted to complete some tax work at home. She drank some vodka and sparkling water, though she could not remember how much, before leaving about 7 p.m. for the Alamo Drafthouse, where she had two more glasses of wine.
She said she recalled how much she drank there because she had the receipt. But after leaving the theater, she stopped at a nearby liquor store to buy a bottle of vodka, then a convenience store to buy some soda, and sat in her car in the parking lot to have another drink, she said.
She was alone checking emails and “messing on her phone,” she testified. She could not remember how much of the bottle she consumed, she recalled, but when she turned on the ignition, she did not initially think she had been intoxicated to the point of physical impairment.
Once on the road, she said, she had trouble controlling her car and decided to find a place to stop and call someone for a ride. A sheriff’s deputy then pulled up and found the bottle of vodka in her front passenger’s seat three-quarters full, according to the testimony.
“Do you know you were intoxicated to the point that you couldn’t drive?” ask Jim Collins, an assistant county attorney prosecuting the case.
“I was more intoxicated than I could believe,” she responded.
Stopping at a liquor store to buy vodka, a convenience store to buy soda before then mixing and consuming one or more drinks while sitting in a car alone in a parking lot conjures an image of something other than a social drinker who accidentally had one too many. Not as though that’s okay – but it’s a far different scenario than described.
Nonetheless, the third day of the trial was a parade of legal industry witnesses – lawyers and judges – testifying that Lehmberg and only Lehmberg could effectively lead the Travis County District Attorney’s office. She’s competent, professional, has done so much and everyone loves her.
Lehmberg’s past accomplishments and future continuing recovery were big – really big – lines of questioning. Discussions of district attorney office credibility, public perceptions of ethics or integrity much less a prevailing sense many taxpayers have of hypocrisy. These were not subjects broached.
As with Boyd in the Couch case, Peeples did his part and Lehmberg stays in office.
Drunk driving history was indeed made this week in Texas.