"American Sniper" Trial in Texas Tests Limits of Sympathy for Vets

This week, jury selection began in the trial of Eddie Ray Routh for the murder of Chris Kyle, whose career as a soldier in Iraq (and “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history”) is dramatized in the film “American Sniper.”

Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle signs a copy of his book “American Sniper” for a Camp Pendleton sailor in 2012.

This week, jury selection began in the trial of Eddie Ray Routh for the murder of Chris Kyle, whose career as a Navy SEAL in Iraq (and “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history”) is dramatized in the film “American Sniper.” The film does not portray Kyle’s death, but media reports have drawn an outline that will be filled in at the trial, now beginning in Stephenville, Texas; Routh, a fellow veteran whose life spiraled after his return from Iraq, went to a remote shooting range with Kyle, who expected the experience would help Routh cope with his war trauma. Once at the range, Routh turned his gun on Kyle and friend Chad Littlefield. Routh confessed to the murders. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Routh’s attorney has said his client will plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Numerous reports on Routh’s activities before he shot Kyle seem to show that his increasingly erratic behavior after his return from Iraq could be tied to his struggle to reintegrate into life at home. Routh was not the first veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to commit murder, and his trial will not be the first time lawyers for a veteran claim that war trauma was responsible for insane behavior that should not be judged by the typical standards of human conduct. But it is by far the most famous example.

The crimes committed by veterans have ranged from drunk driving to mass murder, and the punishments for these crimes have ranged from rehabilitative treatment in specialized courts to the death penalty. Such cases are subject to two competing waves of American popular sentiment. One is a skepticism of claims of mental illness when it comes to criminal conduct. The other is a recent rise in sympathy and support for men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental problems. The trial — and specifically how jurors react to claims about the role PTSD played in Routh’s shooting of Chris Kyle — will test the limits of American sympathy for the struggles of veterans when those struggles lead to criminal behavior. Ironically, a major driver of that sympathy is the film celebrating the very man Routh killed.

In 1982, John Hinckley, Jr. succeeded with an insanity defense after attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley claimed to have been trying to impress the actress Jodie Foster, with whom he had been obsessed ever since seeing her in the film, “Taxi Driver.” According to ABC polling, more than 80 percent of the public believed that “justice was not done” in the case, leading Congress to pass the 1984 Insanity Defense Reform Act, which declared that someone could only plead insanity if he “was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts.”

The act only applied to federal trials, and state legislatures varied in how they dealt with the insanity defense, but overall it has been on the decline in recent decades. In Texas, the best known victory in such a case was that of Andrea Yates, who drowned her children in a bathtub and in 2006 was sentenced to commitment at a state hospital instead of prison. (A successful insanity defense usually leads to confinement in a psychiatric facility).

Defense attorney Keith Hampton, who has worked on similar cases, said today Yates “would have a hard time winning.” In 2008, the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the standard of insanity should be limited to “people who did not know their conduct was legally wrong.” That’s hard to prove. Hampton is preparing to defend a young man named Adan Castaneda, who shot a gun into his mother’s house after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder connected to his military service. The rules governing insanity defenses, Hampton says, are “stricter than ever before.” As in the Castaneda case, Routh’s attorneys must convince jurors he did not know that his actions were wrong. They have argued with prosecutors over whether the jury should see Routh’s confession, in which he said he was “sorry” (which might imply a knowledge of wrongdoing) but also rambled incoherently about a wolf in the sky and said of Kyle, his victim, “I knew if I didn't take out his soul, he would take my soul next.”

The number of veterans committing crimes, including murder, is on the rise, and the Texas ruling limiting the insanity defense came just as more and more veterans began to return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them, including Routh and Kyle, turned to alcohol, which according to research by Western Oregon University criminal justice professor William Brown “combined with lethargic civilian attitudes of the problems veterans confront,” thus providing “the ingredients of a recipe designed to accelerate the probability of increased veteran incarceration.”

The film, “American Sniper,” and Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, are the latest cultural products of a widespread effort to address those “lethargic civilian attitudes” by showing how mentally difficult it can be for soldiers to return home after traumatizing experiences on the battlefield. Actor Bradley Cooper, who played Kyle in the film, recently said he hoped his work would “shed light on the fact of what servicemen and women have to go through, and that we need to pay attention to our vets.”

A growing sympathy for veterans has, in part, taken the form of veteran’s courts, which have sprouted around the country to give men and women — usually those who have been diagnosed with war-related mental disorders like PTSD — strict regimens of psychological and drug-addiction treatment in lieu of jail time. They have been heralded, though many do not deal with violent crimes, which are common among veterans who struggle with aggressiveness that may have been helpful during deployment but lingers after discharge, according to Christopher Deutsch of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

These courts do not deal with insanity, which only comes up as a defense in criminal trials. To date, there is only one widely-known case in which an insanity defense tied to post-traumatic stress disorder helped a veteran avoid life in prison for murder, which might provide a template for Routh’s defense. It took place in rural eastern Oregon in 2009, after Iraq veteran Jessie Bratcher (who was 27, the same age as Routh) shot a man he believed had raped his wife. “He’d been getting PTSD disability money for years leading up to this,” says Bratcher’s attorney Markku Sario, “We were able to prove that his friend had been killed in front of him; he had a tough time in Iraq.”

Sario believes that his client benefited — and Routh may well benefit — from a rise in sympathy for veterans that translates into juries interpreting their actions as the result of emotional wounds they cannot necessarily control. The insanity defense “would never have worked during the Vietnam War,” said Sario, himself a veteran. “During Vietnam, returning soldiers came back and were called baby killers. There weren’t yellow ribbons.”

Routh’s trial will help to delineate where that sympathy ends, and what the difference is between explaining a crime and excusing it. Chris Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, recently said of Routh’s defense, that “to try and even find an excuse” for the murder of her husband “is disgusting.”

Editor's note: This story was reported by Maurice Chammah for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.  You can sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter