Ex-Marine Eddie Ray Routh was found guilty of murdering American Sniper protagonist Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield in Stephenville, Texas, late Tuesday. Because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, Routh received an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The verdict came after a bizarre trial that was heavily covered by the national media and renewed focus on the problem of mental health among America's veterans.
Kyle was the protagonist of the Oscar-nominated Clint Eastwood film that focused on his time in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper, concluding with his murder at the hands of Routh. But the trial was never about whether Routh shot Kyle and Littlefield at a gun range in February 2013, fled in Kyle's pickup truck, hit a Taco Bell for a quick bite, and showed up hours later at his brother-in-law's house declaring "he had taken two souls before they could get me."
Those are facts, agreed on by both prosecution and defense.
Instead, the nine-day trial was bent on determining whether or not Routh was in a sane state of mind when he shot his victims.
Routh and his attorneys asserted that he was not guilty of the crimes by reason of insanity. Jurors heard a forensic psychiatrist testify that Routh told him when he pulled the trigger, he saw not men but rather "pig assassins" who had been sent to kill him. (Routh himself never took the stand.)
Though Routh did not serve in a combat role in Iraq, his behavior was erratic enough for doctors at a Dallas Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital to diagnose him with post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis in July 2011. Routh was in and out of VA clinics at that time. But it wasn't until September 2012, when he threatened to kill himself and his family, that local police got involved and ended up taking Routh to a psychiatric hospital after they found him walking around crying, drunk, and without a shirt or shoes.
The police report from the September 2012 incident details how "Eddie stated he was hurting and that his family does not understand what he has been through." Then, on January 19, 2013—two weeks before Kyle and Littlefield's killings—Routh was again taken to a mental hospital after holding his girlfriend and her roommate hostage with a sword at their apartment.
But the picture painted by this history, along with the accompanying testimony from police, doctors, and Routh's family, was not enough to convince the jury that Routh was experiencing some form of mental disassociation, or that he couldn't distinguish right from wrong at the time of his acts.
To prove Routh knew what he was doing was not OK, the state's attorneys pointed to evidence of remorse following each of his outbursts. Most notably, prosecutors underscored Routh's confession to his family, his attempt to evade arrest, and his later admission to an officer that he made a mistake as evidence that he was capable of distinguishing right from wrong after—and therefore implicitly at the time of—the shooting. The nuances of Texas law essentially mean that though someone may have mental illness, and may act like it, the insanity defense does not apply if they possess even a rudimentary moral compass.
Indeed, Alan Nash, the Texas prosecutor, explained to the jury "the evidence will show that mental illnesses, even the ones that this defendant may or may not have, don't deprive people from being good citizens, to know right from wrong."
After all, a few hours before his death, during the drive to the shooting range with Routh, Kyle texted Littlefield that Routh was acting "straight-up nuts."
Mitchell H. Dunn, a psychiatrist called by the defense, testified that he had talked extensively with Routh about what was going through his mind when he shot Kyle and Littlefield. Dunn said "he began to think that Mr. Kyle and Mr. Littlefield were some type of pig assassins—hybrid pigs sent here to kill people."
Though the prosecution later successfully argued that this defense was likely the construction of Routh during his time in jail following the killings—it bears an uncanny likeness to an episode of Seinfeld Routh was said to enjoy watching—it ultimately fails to answer the question of whether Routh was in full control of his actions when he pulled the trigger.
Despite the more than 30 witnesses called in for the trial, that is a question ultimately left unanswered. If Routh's insanity defense had held up, and he had not been found guilty, the court could have started proceedings to have him committed to a state mental hospital.
Instead, he'll do life, barring a successful appeal.
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