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Posted on Sat. Dec. 14, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

If even the rich are victims, what chance have the poor got?

Goofy 'affluenza' legal defense the inevitable result of our growing lack of responsibility

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After the 1992 riot in Los Angeles left 55 people dead and more than 2,300 injured, some attempted to justify the mayhem as the product of “urban rage syndrome.”

After Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis in 1993 then threw it into a field, some excused it as the result of “battered wife syndrome.”

After the Menendez brothers gunned down their parents in their Beverly Hills mansion in 1989, the bloody crime was supposedly motivated by “abused child syndrome.”

So perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or later, somebody would seek – and perhaps benefit from --sympathy for having been driven to crime by a debilitating life of ease and wealth.

In a Texas courtroom this week, 16-year-old Ethan Crouch was sentenced to 10 years of probation after killing four people while driving drunk – a lenient sentence critics say may have been influenced by an “expert” psychiatric witness' claim that Crouch had been victimized by “affluenza,” a term popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O'Neal's in the book, “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”

According to the Associated Press, the “disease” is caused by the sense of entitlement and irresponsibility that can result from growing up in a home in which everything comes far too easily.

“The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying,” responded Dr. Gary Buffone, a Florida psychologist and family wealth adviser. “Not only haven't the parents set any consequences, but it's being reinforced by the judge's actions. The simple term would be, 'spoiled brat.' ”

“This is a very, very dangerous thing we're telling our children,” agreed Dr. Suniya Luthar, who specializes in the “cost” of affluence. “We're settling a double standard for the rich and poor.” But that's just the point: The rich are now claiming the same excuse for bad behavior that has so freely been granted members of more-sympathetic groups.

The critics of “affluenza” are right, of course – but far too late. Crouch's defense and the possible leniency resulting from it were predictable the moment group politics were allowed to overwhelm individual responsibility.

By all accounts, Lorena Bobbitt was indeed abused by her husband John. The Menendez boys may have had good reason to hate their parents. No one doubts that life in crime-plagued, economically challenged central cities is difficult. I imagine – but do not know from experience --that growing up in incredible wealth can create its own unique challenges.

None of that begins to justify the acts these and other dehumanizing “syndrome” defenses seek to minimize. Lorena Bobbitt was not immediately at risk when she pulled the knife. The Menendez brothers did not kill in self-defense, nobody forced Crouch to drink and drive.

And nobody was threatening ex-Marine Henry Keith Watson when made himself part of the group that beat truck driver Reginald Denny to a pulp during the L.A. riots. It was Damian Williams who struck Denny's head with a cinderblock, but it was Watson who stood on Denny's neck as it happened.

Watson was safely at home that day when he learned that a jury with no black members had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black man stopped for speeding nearly 14 months before. “I got caught up in the emotions like everyone else,” he told a reporter later. “I never even knew Reginald Denny. Just the anger and the rage just took hold to where I nor anyone who was out there that day was in their right frame of mind.”

Watson was convicted of misdemeanor assault and spent 17 months in jail. That's 17 months more than Crouch will serve, even though Watson's rage was no doubt more legitimate than Crouch's “affluenza.”

Is that fair? Probably not, even though his crime was deliberate and Crouch's apparently was not. But that's the problem with made-to-order legal excuses that seek to erase the principle that all people, regardless of race, gender or economic status, should be held accountable for what they do.

That's the kind of “blind justice” the courts are supposed to enforce – not the blindness sought by boutique psychological defenses that, once legitimatized, cannot be claimed by some groups and denied to others. Everyone has problems; not everyone butchers their sleeping spouse or beats helpless drivers over the head after pulling them from their trucks.

“Affluenza” may indeed be the most ridiculous such defense of them all. But it will not be the last, nor the most ridiculous, unless we learn the difference between excuses and accountability. When even the rich can claim to be helpless victims, society's poorest and most vulnerable have the most to lose.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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