The Price of Justice: Does wealth influence the legal system?

On the evening of June 15, 2013, Breanna Mitchell’s SUV broke down on the side of a country road in rural Texas. Fortunately for Mitchell, local mother and daughter Hollie and Shelby Boyles stopped to help, as did passing youth pastor Brian Jennings. With things looking up, the newfound friends exchanged pleasantries as they worked to get Mitchell back on her way. But none of them would ever move from that spot. Moments later, 16-year-old Ethan Couch came barreling around the corner at 70 miles per hour, his father’s Ford F-350 pickup loaded with stolen beer. Couch lost control and plowed into Mitchell’s SUV before colliding with Jennings’ parked car. Mitchell, Jennings and both Boyles were killed instantly. In custody three hours later, Couch had a blood alcohol content three times the legal limit and tested positive for marijuana and Valium. With prosecutors seeking the maximum 20-year jail sentence for manslaughter and assault, the judge ruled that the son of millionaire Fred Couch was a product of “affluenza” and would be sentenced to attend rehabilitation at his parents’ expense instead. A portmanteau of affluence and influenza, affluenza is an inability to understand the consequences of actions due to financial privilege, coupled with an inability to understand that actions bear consequences due to the conviction that wealth buys immunity.
Also aged 16 at the time of her conviction was Cyntoia Brown. The abandoned daughter of a Tennessee crack addict, Brown fled the horrors of home only to be groomed by a local pimp, Garion L. McGlothen, and sent to the streets. On the night of August 6, 2004, Brown was solicited by Johnny Michael Allen, a 43-year-old army veteran. During the course of the evening, something went wrong and Brown shot Allen with a .40 caliber handgun. Promptly convicted, Brown was handed a life sentence with the earliest possibility of parole in 60 years. Only after his resignation from office did outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam grant Brown clemency. Sixteen years into her life sentence, Brown will be released in August, but still will be required to fulfill 10 years of probation.
Can two anecdotes prove that wealth influences the legal system? No, but these two incidents are indicative of the relationship between crime and wealth as a whole. The system is littered with prejudice and privilege, the playground of multi-millionaires infected by affluenza. And that is because grappling with the law is expensive, regardless of your guilt or lack thereof. Average lawyer fees range from $255 to $520 per hour, depending on your part of the country you’re in. Even a minor case settled outside the courts can cost several thousand dollars, which means if you can hire a good lawyer, you have a great chance of beating the system.
Take the acquittal of the heir to the $14.5 billion du Pont family fortune, Robert H. Richards IV. In 2009, Richards was convicted of multiple charges of rape against his daughter when she was a toddler. Facing an extensive jail sentence, Richards’ high-priced lawyers got the charges reduced to a fourth-degree rape plea, normally associated with statutory rape, and switched an eight-year prison sentence for probation on the basis that Richards would not “fare well” in prison.
On the flip side of Robert H. Richards IV are those who cannot afford to challenge their accusers, which includes many more of us. African Americans are, on average, the poorest racial group in the country, and innocent black people are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. And it gets worse. African Americans make up only 13% of the American population, yet report the highest incidence of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted; a staggering 47% of the exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations relate to members of the African American community.
Things aren’t much better in the next poorest group in the country. Indigenous Americans are subject to seemingly endless abuses, with gender being one of the most troubling drivers of violence. Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by all forms of violent crimes; 84% experience trauma in their lifetime. In Canada, this group is significantly overrepresented among female Canadian homicide victims, and they are more likely than other women to be abducted. Back in the States, Chippewa activist Leonard Peltier rots in prison for a crime he did not commit, but was placed behind bars nonetheless in order to break the spirit of civil rights group AIM (American Indian Movement), of which Peltier was a key leader.
Unconvinced? Just remind yourself of the ridiculous theater going on in the White House. If there ever was an example of wealth and privilege manipulating the law, it’s the Trump Administration. And the sad thing is, this behavior is increasingly being considered normal.  •

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