While American Sniper lost in its Oscar nomination for Best Picture on Sunday, the real life American Sniper trial is set to end soon in a small court room in Stephenville, Texas. Closing arguments are set to be heard this week in the murder trial of former U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. war history. Kyle and another man, Chad Littlefield were allegedly killed on February 2, 2013 by a friend, Eddie Ray Routh. The defense clearly admits to killing Kyle and asserts he is not guilty by reason of insanity. All three men were headed to a gun shooting range on the day of the killing. Ironically, Kyle’s life ended in the manner in which he was decorated as a war hero—by a gun shot. Routh after the killing told his sister that “people were sucking his soul,” according to prosecutors. Routh suffers from PTSD, psychosis and severe schizophrenia, according to his medical experts.
Most cases of insanity are difficult to prove and amount to a battle of experts. In Texas, in order to prove a case of insanity, the defense has to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant did not know his actions were legally wrong and he suffers from a mental illness. Since many in this country do not understand mental illness, it becomes even more difficult when presented with the issue at a trial. And some persons believe the defendant, if found not guilty by reason of insanity will walk away absolutely free. That notion is far from the truth. John Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting at President Regan and wounding James Brady, remains in a mental institution decades later. While in most criminal actions, the defendant does not need to prove anything as it does not shoulder the burden of proof, in an insanity defense, the defense must prove its defense.
And here’s what the defense has attempted to prove in its case. Their medical expert, psychiatrist Dr. Michael Dunn stated that Routh’s mental condition made it impossible for him to understand the difference between right and wrong. And video from the police car following the arrest could help Routh. In the car, Routh talks about his mental delusions and being paranoid-schizophrenia that entire fateful day. Meanwhile the prosecution’s expert states the exact opposite. The prosecution’s doctor, Randall Price, states that Routh’s mental condition is caused by his continued use of marijuana. And jurors are expected to find the truth between the two experts without any medical training or expertise. That’s the dilemma the defense finds itself in proving an insanity defense. In the final legal analysis, the murder trial for Chris Kyle’s alleged killer comes down to a dueling match between two medical experts.
Beyond the legal issues for the defense on its insanity plea lays the real issue in the case. The defense sought to have the trial removed to another location. Presiding Judge Jason Cashon refused. Stephenville is a small town where everyone knows everyone. There are signs everywhere honoring Chris Kyle as well as Kyle memorabilia being sold. Chris Kyle was the town’s home grown hero. And Routh is accused of killing him. Despite his pleas on insanity, the biggest problem will be getting a jury in a small town to side with the killer of one of their most beloved heroes. And that task will be an extremely uphill battle in the venue where the case is being tried.
Even if the judge was not going to remove the case, which should have happened, then jurors from another jurisdiction should have been brought to the county. This was done in the case of Casey Anthony where jurors from a surrounding county were re-located to hear the case in the county where the murder took place. While the efforts in relocating jurors is a hardship on jurors, the issue is always a fair trial for the defendant as our Constitution guarantees. Most of the people of Stephenville are likely thinking that they lost their town’s hero to a murder committed by Routh. Whether the jury will find Routh’s insanity defense to be valid remains to be seen. The judge has instructed the jury to refrain from reading or seeing media accounts about Chris Kyle and American Sniper. They were allowed to watch the Oscars where American Sniper was nominated. In a small town like Stephenville, jurors do not need to see media accounts to be reminded of Kyle. Memories of Chris Kyle are everywhere.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who maintains a boutique law practice in Washington, DC where she focuses on representing clients in civil and criminal litigation in federal and state courts. She is a former Baltimore, Maryland prosecutor where she prosecuted felonies, including homicides, sex offense and domestic violence crimes.