Dallas DA: 'Affluenza' case sentence influenced Josh Brent jury

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by CARLA WADE

Bio | Email | Follow: @CarlaNWade

WFAA

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 8:24 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 31 at 4:03 PM

DALLAS -- It is a tale of two convicted drunk drivers.

One, 16-year-old Ethan Couch, whose crash killed four people. The other, 26-year-old former Dallas Cowboy Josh Brent, who killed his best friend.

Both were sentenced to 10 years probation and both sentences brought outrage.

Couch is a privileged white teenager. Brent is an African American afforded similar privilege as a former Dallas Cowboy football player.

Some speculated Couch's race, along with his affluent background, may have influenced a judge’s decision not to send him to jail for the deaths of four people. It became known as the “affluenza defense.”

In an interview with radio station K104-FM, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins blamed Brent's sentence not on his race, but the racial makeup of the jury that sentenced him.

“So for us to move forward, we need individuals to take race out of the equation,” Watkins said. “Unfortunately the die has been cast and race still is an issue, but for us, we are going to continue to fight and make sure that the system is fair for everyone and until that happens, then we will have verdicts like O.J. Simpson and like Josh Brent.”

Invoking the name of O.J . Simpson is a sure way to start a debate about race and the law. But defense attorney Toby Shook, a former Dallas County prosecutor, said he doesn’t see the parallels.

“I don’t think that's a good example,” Shook said. “Obviously O.J. Simpson was freed. Josh Brent is being held responsible. He was found guilty.”

Brent's jury included four white people, five black people, and three Hispanic people. Watkins said race made some jurors more likely to respond to pleas for leniency and to try and make Brent’s sentence similar to Couch’s sentence.

He said those jurors may have seen see their decision-making process through the racial lens of past injustices.

“Race still plays a factor," Watkins said. “Now that we have individuals that are of color and have the opportunity to serve on juries and decide a person’s guilt or innocence, now we are seeing the opposite effect. And so the past, basically, is dictating the future.

“And so for us to move forward, we need individuals to take race out of the equation,” he continued.  

“I don’t think that race alone by any means affected this case,” Shook said. “It was the fact that the victim was the defendant’s best friend and the family of the victim wanted probation.”

When asked directly about the so-called “affluenza defense” used in Couch’s case and its impact on jurors, First Assistant District Attorney Heath Harris said, “The reason I firmly believe that the affluenza case influenced people, we’re in the MLK parade and people are yelling, ‘Hey free Josh Brent!’ And 'Man, give him probation. That other guy killed four people.'”

Shook also said it's important to note how long the jury was out in Brent’s case before the sentencing. They deliberated for two days, which leads him to believe some jurors didn't believe the prosecution fully proved its case.

News 8 reached out to Watkins to get further explanation, but he was not available for an interview.

E-mail cwade@wfaa.com

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