Posted in Behind the News

Reporter persists through legal labyrinth to produce ‘affluenza’ family portrait

, by Paul Colford

A staff memo by Vice President-U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes the obstacles that an investigative reporter overcame to produce “a document-driven, explanatory piece that added key context to a story that had been a focus of saturation coverage”:

When Texas teenager Ethan Couch used an "affluenza” defense after killing four people in a 2013 drunken-driving crash, his probation sentence drew national outrage. Anger reignited in December, when Couch and his mother fled the United States after an online party video suggested he might have violated the terms of his probation.Lost in the manhunt and media frenzy over Couch's return to the U.S. was the fact that Couch's fatal wreck was simply one of many run-ins he and his family had had with the law.Dallas investigative reporter Reese Dunklin collected police, court and other public records dating back decades to background the family. He filed a half-dozen open-record requests with multiple agencies and searched government websites.
This Dec. 28, 2015, file photo, released by Mexico's Jalisco state prosecutor's office shows who authorities identify as Ethan Couch, after he was taken into custody in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (Mexico's Jalisco state prosecutor's office via AP, File)
That enabled him to detail the family's long history of legal problems, including Ethan's mother losing her state nursing license after lying to regulators about a criminal charge, and an assault and sexual harassment complaint against his father, who was also later accused of impersonating a police officer. Those details helped demonstrate a pattern of legal problems which the Couch family often sought to resolve with money – a pattern experts said taught the teen he could get away with almost anything. One pertinent piece of history turned out to be particularly tough to document: Couch's drunken brush with police four months before the deadly crash. Prosecutors had introduced the incident during the sentencing phase of his 2013 trial and played an officer's dash-cam video from the stop. The hearing was open, so reporters covering it at the time could see evidence and take notes. But post-hearing, Texas' laws severely limited access to juvenile court records. Dunklin filed a public-information request with the police department that ticketed Couch in that earlier incident. It released sparse records and none with the narrative information he sought. Dunklin then reached out to lawyers for Couch victim families, who said they could not help. So he went back to the books and found a Texas statute that seemed to open a door. It let anyone "having a legitimate interest in the proceeding or in the work of the court” inspect a juvenile case file – as long as a judge agreed. Dunklin also found a 2014 appeals court ruling in which a judge was ordered to make transcripts available to the news media. Armed with that information, Dunklin wrote to the judge supervising the case. He argued that the probation sentence had "brought intense attention to the sentencing decisions” and that the hunt for Couch in Mexico had "expended taxpayer-funded law enforcement resources.” The judge denied Dunklin access to the physical file – but did permit access to testimony transcripts. The court reporter, unfortunately, said she'd made only two transcripts – one of a victim's parent and one of Couch's psychologists. She said a different appeals court ruling wouldn't let her do one for the dash-cam video because it hadn't been read into the official court record. Nor would she agree to release her audio recordings, which she considered her "work product.” But, she said, there was a different police report from that same night that was read into the record. After double-checking with the judge, she told Dunklin she could transcribe that testimony for $30. Rather than delay efforts by haggling further, Dunklin agreed to pay for the transcribed police report. The report, from another police department that had also responded to the scene that night, proved invaluable. Some excerpts had been noted in media coverage of the 2013 trial, but not the most illuminating sections, which became the basis for the top of Dunklin’s story: DALLAS (AP) — Ethan Couch was behind the wheel of a pickup truck, reeking of booze when police confronted him. He had no driver's license. Next to him was a passed-out, half-naked girl, and an open vodka bottle lay on the backseat floor. Still, as one officer reported, the skinny, blond 15-year-old mouthed off as they questioned him. He said he had taken pre-law classes and knew what police could and couldn't do to him. The officer cautioned him about the perils of drinking and driving, according to court records obtained by The Associated Press. Throughout the reporting, Dunklin strategized with Maud Beelman, editor for Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, rethinking the approach before settling on the final angle. Dunklin’s story, with contributions from Fort Worth’s Emily Schmall and photos from the scene by Mat Otero of Couch's earlier run-in with police, was among the top AP Mobile stories for the week. For a document-driven, explanatory piece that added key context to a story that had been a focus of saturation coverage, Dunklin wins this week’s $300 prize.