Nightly News   |  December 14, 2013

Is being rich a legal defense against killing?

A Texas teen’s defense of "affluenza" helps him avoid prison time in a deadly drunk driving case. NBC’s Mike Taibbi reports.

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>>> we're back now with a story that has people in texas and beyond asking whether justice was served in the case of a teenager who killed four people while driving drunk . his lawyer cited something called affluenza, arguing that because he was affluent, he couldn't see the consequence of his actions. and the judge agreed. here's nbc's mike thai ye bee.

>> reporter: the action in ft. worth, texas, last june was so horrific, four dead, that first responders likened it so the scene of an air crash . 16-year-old ethan couch plowed into a vehicle while driving nearly twice the speed limit at three times the legal blood alcohol level . but his sentence in juvenile court for vehicular manslaughter, a crime that often resulted in a 5 to 15-year prison sentence , was probation, no jail time. eric boyles lost his wife and daughter.

>> there are just some things that even today are just too difficult to talk about. and at this point, we're trying to take life one day at a time.

>> reporter: boyles and the other victims' relatives said it's especially wrong because couch's lawyers claim something called affluenza for a drunk driving accident, saying the affluent teen had such a sense of entitlement, he couldn't see right from wrong.

>> the defense of affluenza is unheard of and wrong legally because it puts the wealthy on a better position than the rest of us.

>> reporter: under terms of his probation, couch will be treated as this $450,000 a year rehab facility in california and will be denied what his attorney called the things he was used to.

>> he's not going to have his x-box. he's not going to have alcohol or drugs.

>> reporter: prosecutors had asked for a 20-year sentence, saying the only roots now to justice for victims families are the lawsuits filed in civil court .

>> they'll have opportunities in other courtrooms, in other forums to get some of that justice. and i wish them god speed .

>> reporter: this woman clings to a photo of her grandson sergio, who was left paralyzed from the accident. she says sergio was a smart boy, always made us laugh, and now he'll never be the same. the family is now suing ethan couch and his family for $20 million.

>> how is he going to be free to walk, you know? not even one night in jail, county, you know. yet, my brother's got a life sentence .

>> reporter: the case has triggered an online recall petition aimed at the judge in the case, jean boyd, and a growing crowd of critics of the justice system that tilts towards the rich.

>> unfortunately, the wounds that it opened only makes the healing process that much greater.

>> reporter: a child of affluence who unlike others who confessed to the same crime is not heading to prison. nbc news, los angeles .