Dear Ethan Couch, Living Up to Hope Will Be Harder than Living Down Hate

Ethan Couch, you probably have no idea how people really feel about you. You think they hate you, right? You think they think you’re scum. Maybe you think they’re jealous of you for being rich. If you have been reading the online comments, then I guess you might be justified in believing that people have all kinds of reasons for despising you. And they do.

Some people. But I know something I bet you don’t know about so-called public opinion. People have a whole different set of feelings when they’re talking about somebody in the news than when it’s someone they know, an actual flesh and blood human being.

People in the news are kind of like piñatas. Taking swipes at them is fun. But a real person who is in trouble in real life — your own kid, your parent, even a stranger who happens to be before your eyes at the moment — is no fun at all, because when you’re eye-to-eye you can see the suffering.

When you were 15, busted for being a minor in possession of alcohol, the police officer who found you passed out with a half-naked, drunk 14-year-old girl in your pickup tried to talk to you. I know about it because a video of the arrest was presented as evidence in one of your juvenile hearings. Greg Coontz, the attorney who represented the families of two of your victims, told me he sat through that proceeding and watched the video.

He said the cop in the video told you that he knew where you were headed — not that night but in life. He had seen your profile before. He told you that you needed to get off the bad path you were on and get on a good path or a terrible fate would await you.

Think about what that cop was really telling you about yourself. The big news was not that you were on a bad path. I mean, c’mon, kid, you were busted. The bad path was pretty obvious. The news was that he said you could find your way to a good path.

No, wait,  let me tell you something else that Coontz told me. As you well know, he was the civil lawyer who represented the family of Brian Jennings, the youth minister who was among the four people you killed on the night of June 15, 2013, and the family of Lucas McConnell, then 12 years old, who has healed from the physical injuries you inflicted but must live the rest of his life with brutal memories.

I asked him how the families of your victims felt about your being back in town after your ill-fated trip to Mexico. He said he thinks this ugly homecoming, like all of your returns to notoriety, is hard on them: “It just kind of keeps things stirred up, over and over,” he said. “I have never heard them complain or make a big deal about it, but it’s just that they have no chance for closure and to move on.”

Coontz, a partner in a firm in Burleson, is off the clock in your case, no longer representing anybody in active litigation against your family, but he still runs interference for his former clients whenever there’s a new Ethan Couch media storm.

“These are all such good folks,” he said. “I’m pretty close to them now. I feel an obligation to kind of be a line of defense for them, so I spent a good portion of yesterday and today fielding the inquiries and saying, ‘Sorry, they don’t feel like they have anything to add right now.’”

I wanted to know something about them. I know that in the past some members of both the Jennings and McConnell families have spoken generously about their hopes for your rehabilitation. But, face it, Ethan: You’ve kind of pulled them through the wringer a few times. I wondered where those feelings stand now. I wondered if you had finally exhausted their capacity to feel anything but hatred for you.

Coontz told me he and they had harbored a measure of hope for you early on. “I felt like, if he had come out of the treatment they sent him to, if he had done the things that probably his lawyers were telling him to do, if he had done the things that a normal individual with a conscience and guilty feelings would have done, apologized, maybe helped others, then I thought he had a chance.

“Frankly, I thought he had a chance to be perhaps the word’s most believable spokesman to teens and young adults, for sure, to say look what I went through, what are the mistakes I made, don’t make these mistakes. I think that was his hope for a normal life.”

But, of course, you didn’t do any of that. You did beer pong. You do know what the real problem with the beer pong video is, I hope. The video may not offer courthouse proof that you yourself were consuming alcohol, but it shows you acting a fool with people who probably were drunk.

No one who had come to grips with the kind of remorse you have hanging over your head would have put himself within a city block of that kind of mess. And you probably were drunk, which means obviously that you haven’t dried out yet. Get real about that part, kid: You’re not going anywhere good until you dry out.

But, I didn’t come here to wag a finger in your face. I can’t imagine my one poor, skinny finger would make an impression on you at this point. On those long nights with your face shoved into the corner of a cell in Mexico, you probably saw a million wagging fingers, a solid landscape of wriggling fingers blocking out earth and sky, all telling you what a worthless little son of a bitch you are.

Coontz walked me through the long, agonizing moral saga of the families of your victims: “When the judge made her initial ruling, they did not feel like it was enough consequences for his action to get his attention, but they came to terms with it in the hope that when he came back he would have learned something and changed his behavior. They had accepted it.

“Their feeling was, ‘OK if he comes back and he’s rehabilitated and he makes something of his life, then the judge was right and that was the right decision.’

“Then he’s back hardly any time, and this beer pong video surfaced. At that point they said, ‘That’s what we feared might happen. Clearly he has not changed or learned a thing.’

“And so now they would like to see whatever consequences there are be applied to him, but they know that in the big scheme of things those are very, very limited because of the prior rulings. They understand all that, and they have come to grips with that.”

So where does that leave them? Do they now want simple vengeance, a pound of flesh, his blood?

“No,” he said. “They are very nice folks. They are forgiving. They have all forgiven him. They never ever wanted vengeance, nor was that their goal. After it happened, they just wanted him to be turned around so there would be some sort of a positive result from this.”

There. That point. That’s what I want you to look at and see. We agreed at the top that lots of people hate your guts, but the people you injured most egregiously do not.

Even after the night of maiming and death, even after the insulting video and the not very clever escape to Mexico, even after your return and another apparent escape from consequences, the families of the people you killed and maimed want the same thing that cop wanted when he found you passed out in your pickup before any of subsequent horror: They all want you to get off the bad path you’re on and onto the good one.

Why do they give a single damn what happens to you? You can figure this part out yourself, Ethan. You can see it. Go back and look at that last remark from Coontz, “… so there would be some sort of a positive result from this.”

The people whose lives you darkened so terribly want you to find your own way up out of the darkness. They want you to have a good and useful life so that some element of good can come from all of this suffering.

Of course some people hate you. That’s a weight you will bear to the end of your life, but guess what? That’s the lesser part of your burden. Those are strangers. If that’s all you’re going to deal with, that’s easy. Drink more, be more of a fool and end your life despising yourself in some even worse hell than what you’ve seen already.

The heavier lift for you is on the other path, the good one, propelled by the hope that the families of your victims still tender toward you. Living up to that will be hard work. You’ll actually have to do stuff. You will have to strive to compensate for what you have stolen by giving everything you can find to give, always knowing it will never be enough.

But the reward is in the trying. When you try, you are no longer scum, no longer just that little son of a bitch rich kid. You’ll always be the guy who used to be that guy, but you won’t be that guy any more. In your trying you will put some measure of light and happiness back into the very hearts you broke.

That cop who found you in the pickup was trying to save you, pal, and he was doing it because it’s how we all save each other, by embracing our mutual responsibility to each other. You’re part of that, Ethan. Until you’re not.