‘American Sniper’ trial: Why US juries have little patience for insanity plea

Eddie Ray Routh-american-sniper-killer

A jury in Stephenville, Texas, returned a guilty-as-charged capital murder verdict against Eddie Ray Routh in less than two hours, underscoring how little patience the US court system and its juries have with most claims of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Menacing and fully armed hybrid pig-men out to kill. A stop at a burger joint to “force-feed” a captive. The oppressive odor of a cloying cologne feeding a sense of imminent danger.

Eddie Ray Routh’s psychedelic recollections of the day he killed “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and his buddy Chad Littlefield, his defense argued, were the rantings of a man in the throes of a psychotic episode, so insane in the moment that he couldn’t tell right from wrong – the Texas standard for a jury finding someone not guilty by reason of insanity.

But a jury in Stephenville, Texas, returned a guilty-as-charged capital murder verdict against Mr. Routh in less than two hours, in the process underscoring how little patience the US court system and its citizen juries have with most claims of not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge sentenced the 27-year-old former Marine to life in prison, without any possibility of parole, for the Feb. 2, 2013, double murder. The defense has said it will appeal.

“If as a defense attorney you start off with a sympathetic victim and an unlikable defendant, you’re in a hole no matter what defense you’ve got,” says Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor and former prosecutor. “In general, insanity is a desperation defense. You haven’t got anything else, so you play crazy.”

The trial gripped the country’s consciousness, in part because of the $400 million worldwide box office take of Clint Eastwood’s cinematic profile of Mr. Kyle, one of America’s most proficient and efficient Navy SEAL snipers. “American Sniper” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. At the Oscars Sunday, it won a sound editing award.

But the trial and Tuesday night’s verdict also raised deeper questions about the ability of the justice system to fairly balance mental illness claims against the anger of a community, indeed a whole state. After declaring Feb. 2 “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, after the verdict, tweeted “JUSTICE!”

Jane Campbell Moriarty, editor of “Mental Illness in Criminal Trials,” said in a Monitor interview last week that the US justice system has long struggled to incorporate new findings and frontiers in neurological science into understanding the nature of crime. In part, that divide largely explains why insanity defenses are raised in less than 1 percent of criminal trials. That’s despite the fact that a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that about half of all US inmates, or 1.3 million, suffer from some form of mental illness.

“It sounds like [Routh] had a very high level of mental illness and that he was mis-perceiving reality in a very substantive way,” said Professor Moriarty, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “However, we have a long history as humans of disliking the insanity defense” because people so easily equate it with getting away with murder.

At the same time, while the insanity claim bar is a high one, it at least acknowledges that mental illness can cause people to become detached from reality to the point where delusions spark criminal actions. However, in most states, including Texas, juries can find people diagnosed with mental illness guilty of capital crimes if they believe the defendant could tell the difference between right and wrong at the time he or she committed the crime.

“The insanity defense reflects a compromise on the part of society and the law,” writes the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell University School of Law, in an analysis. “On the one hand, society believes that criminals should be punished for their crimes; on the other hand, society believes that people who are ill should receive treatment for their illness. The insanity defense is the compromise.”

Routh admitted to killing Kyle and Littlefield at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort on Feb. 2, 2013. He gave several versions of his motives, which ranged from a sense that the men were going to kill him, so he acted in self-defense, to his explanation to The New Yorker magazine that he became annoyed at Littlefield, who seemed to be watching him suspiciously instead of shooting down-range.

“Are you gonna shoot? Are you gonna shoot? It’s a shooting sport. You shoot,” Routh reportedly said. “That’s what got me all riled up.”

Routh also told a sheriff’s deputy at the jail that, “I shot them because they wouldn’t talk to me. I was just riding in the back seat of the truck and nobody would talk to me.

The insanity plea, to be sure, had some hopes of success, even in a patriotic corner of the country like Erath County, Texas. After all, in 2006, a Texas jury found Andrea Yates, who admitted to drowning her five children in 2001, not guilty by reason of insanity after an appeals court overturned a previous guilty verdict.

“[Routh] didn’t kill those men because of who he wanted to be, he killed those men because he had a delusion,” said Routh’s lawyer, Warren St. John. “He thought that they were going to kill him.”

Prosecutors argued that Routh was intoxicated and paranoid at the time of the shootings, which when compounded with anger over living with his parents and problems with relationships, work, and money, turned to jealousy toward Kyle and anger at the two men’s stand-offish attitude toward him.

What’s undisputed, however, is that Routh’s mother had pleaded with Kyle to help her son deal with what she believed to be post-traumatic stress disorder from his non-combat deployments to Iraq and Haiti. The ensuing excursion was meant to be a day of bonding, but the interplay between the men quickly soured.

After declaring Routh “straight up nuts” in a text, Kyle texted Littlefield during the drive to the range to “Watch my 6,” military parlance for covering someone’s back. Later at the range, Routh first shot Littlefield several times in the back, and then aimed a fusillade at Kyle, who was shooting at a target from a lying-down position, hitting him in the side and head. Routh then took a pistol – as a trophy, prosecutors argued – and stole Kyle’s truck, stopping on the way back to his parent’s house for a burrito.

Despite acknowledging that Routh “may or may not” be mentally ill, prosecutors urged the jury to not let a person bypass prison after he admitted to knowing it was wrong to shoot two men in the back.

“You reasonable people of Erath County know that that story of hybrid pig-men and pig assassins is a load of hogwash,” District Attorney Jane Starnes said during closing arguments.