HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.
Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.
The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.
The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”
Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.
Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.
Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.
Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”
Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”
Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.
Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.
Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.
“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”
On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.
Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.
Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.
Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.
At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.
While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.
“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”
Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.
Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.
In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.
Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.
Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.
Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.
Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.
But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .
This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.
THANKS TO YOU, regular voters who care, EMIT and UU Mass Action Network, delivered 700-plus
letters to state lawmakers in January 2015 asking them to cosponsor criminal justice reform, especially to end mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and to reform pre-trial practices — what happens when someone gets arrested, and on what basis do we decide to incarcerate them, without being found guilty.
Reaching out to state lawmakers, especially representatives in face-to-face meetings, is one of the most effective ways to make our voice heard in future laws. This is the goal of EMIT.
We especially need voters to visit with state representatives in Springfield, New Bedford and Fall River, Plymouth-Cape Cod-The Islands, and Cape Ann/The North Shore. Can you join us? Please email emit.susan at g mail dot com. Our strategy is simple and issues can easily be understood and communicated to state legislators.
Thanks to the leadership of the State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, the 40 members of the State Senate may be on board with criminal justice reform this legislative session. In 2015, we must focus on the 160 state representatives, and meet with them personally, in their home districts, with constituents like you and a few friends. You can meet at the public library or town hall for 30 minutes and share your urgency to end mass incarceration now.
EMIT is also co-sponsoring events to inform to reform so people feel more knowledgeable when meeting with state representatives.
Save March 28 in Amherst, 10 am to 2 pm at the UCC Church, 165 Main St. Featured speakers are Sen. Stan Rosenberg, who will give more details on justice reinvestment and State Sen. Jamie Eldridge who will describe some pending criminal justice reform bills. Formerly incarcerated people will share their stories, and participants will have time to network. Sponsored by EMIT and Social Justice Committee of Amherst UCC.
Save March 12 in New Bedford and April 16 in Springfield for additional events. More info to come.
In Arlington, on Saturday, March 14, 1-4:30 pm, attend a Road Map towards Justice: How to End Mass Incarceration in Massachusetts, at First Parish Unitarian Universalist 630 Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington.
Come learn about the bills related to mass incarceration and prison reform that might become law in the next two years, and how you can help make our criminal justice system more fair and effective. You will hear from experts, receive fact sheets, and have time to connect with others and digest what you are learning. Speakers include Rep. Dave Rogers, Rep. Sean Garballey, Barbara Dougan, Andrea James, Jon Tetherly, and EPOCA members. Refreshments served too!
RSVPs to firstname.lastname@example.org are appreciated but not required.
This interactive workshop is organized by the Mass Incarceration Working Group of First Parish Arlington and co-sponsored by the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, End Mass Incarceration Together, EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement), Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Mystic Valley Branch of the NAACP,