Experts look at the possible outcomes in the case investigating American Sniper Chris Kyle's murder
While American Sniper has experienced tremendous box-office success since its Dec. 25 release, focus is now likely to shift from the film to the trial of Eddie Ray Routh, the former Marine accused of killing the movie’s protagonist, real-life sniper Chris Kyle.
Opening statements for the trial are set for Wednesday in Stephenville, Texas. After jury selection was completed on Monday, Routh’s defense lawyer, J. Warren St. John, introduced his client to the 10 women and two men who have been tapped.
“Chris Kyle was a hero,” St. John told the jury, according to the Dallas Morning News. “But no matter what you’ve read or seen, no matter how much it might hurt your heart that he lost his life, if you had to vote right now … [Routh] would be innocent.”
Because of the film’s popularity – American Sniper is up for six Oscars on Feb. 22, including Best Picture – Warren has expressed concern about Routh’s ability to receive a fair trial in Erath County, where the memory of Kyle looms large. But a judge denied defense motions to move the trial out of the area or postpone it until after publicity surrounding the film subsides.
With the defense expected to cite post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a key factor in Routh’s not guilty plea – which will officially be entered tomorrow – the case stirs up a number of issues surrounding veterans and mental health. “It’s important to recognize that most people with PTSD are not violent,” says Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Judicial Action. “It would be a bad outcome of this case, and a misleading one, if people concluded they should be afraid of vets or anyone else suffering from PTSD.”
Routh and PTSD
Routh, 27, was diagnosed with PTSD after serving as a Marine during the Iraq War, his sister’s husband told the 911 dispatcher the day he allegedly killed Kyle and Littlefield.
PTSD, which was introduced as an official diagnosis in 1980, could conceivably have caused Routh to experience “flashbacks” to a time in which he was in combat, resulting in his “defending himself against what he thought was a threat, but were actually just innocent people around him,” says Appelbaum.
Alternately, the defense team “may not be thinking of an insanity defense, but something called a diminished capacity,” says Appelbaum. “If you’re successful in an insanity defense, you have succeeded in arguing what the law calls an excuse: ‘I should not be punished for the behavior I engaged in because of my illness. It wouldn’t be fair to punish me given that I did this because of my mental illness.'”
However, in a diminished capacity defense, Appelbaum explains that the defense claims: “I’m not denying that I did it and I should be punished, but I was sufficiently impaired at the time of the crime that I was not capable of having premeditated this. I just responded impulsively on the spot reacting to some stimulus. I’m guilty, but what I’m guilty of is a lesser charge than first-degree murder.”
Proving Diminished Capacity
Dallas County judge Brandon Birmingham says that one must create doubt of the defendant’s intentions to prove diminished capacity in Texas.
“You have specific intent to kill, which is required for capital murder, or else it’s criminally negligent homicide – specific intent to kill during another felony,” Birmingham says.
Birmingham gives the following example: “Let’s say the person has a disease of the mind, they’re hallucinating and think everyone who comes after them is a terrorist, so they shoot and kill a police officer. So, it was their intent to kill a terrorist, not a police officer.”
Potential evidence that could work in Routh’s favor includes military records, combat history, disciplinary records, genetic history and a close observation of isolated incidents that demonstrate the type of behavior that would lead to the decision to kill someone.
“You try to isolate incidences in that individual’s behavior that would lead to that type of decision to kill the man who tried to help him,” says Houston criminal defense attorney George Parnham.
Currently, prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty but rather to sentence Routh to life in jail without parole.
“If they get out from capital murder, they go on a lesser offense, and then he is up for parole,” Birmingham says.
If convicted with parole, Routh would be eligible for parole after serving half of his sentence, explains Birmingham. However, that does not mean parole will be granted.
“It depends on what the facts are,” says the judge. “Everybody deserves a day in court.”
• Additional reporting by MICHELLE TAUBER