Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Yesterday, I posted an entry about Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who was able to present evidence that he suffers from "affluenza" to reduce his criminal penalty after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Over the last few days, a number of sources (see, e.g., here, here, and here) have labeled what Couch did the "affluenza defense" and questioned how evidence of this defense was ever deemed admissible under the expert evidence rules. The short answer is that it wasn't.
Article 37.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure provides in relevant part that
Regardless of the plea and whether the punishment be assessed by the judge or the jury, evidence may be offered by the state and the defendant as to any matter the court deems relevant to sentencing, including but not limited to the prior criminal record of the defendant, his general reputation, his character, an opinion regarding his character, the circumstances of the offense for which he is being tried, and, notwithstanding Rules 404 and 405, Texas Rules of Evidence, any other evidence of an extraneous crime or bad act that is shown beyond a reasonable doubt by evidence to have been committed by the defendant or for which he could be held criminally responsible, regardless of whether he has previously been charged with or finally convicted of the crime or act.
In other words, the Texas Rule of Evidence do not apply at the sentencing phase of a criminal trial in the Lone Star State. Instead, the jude may allow evidence to be offered "as to any matter the court deems relevant to sentencing...." Now, you might disagree with whether evidence of "affluenza" was relevant to sentencing, but it is clear that such evidence was admitted under the rules of evidence.
What is also clear is that there was no "affluenza defense" in the Couch case. A defense is something that, if proven at the guilt/innocence phase of trial, leads to an exoneration. On the other hand, Couch's affluenza evidence is properly characterized as "mitigation evidence," i.e., evidence used at sentencing to lower the criminal penalty.