The ‘American Sniper’ murder trial: Was Chris Kyle’s killer legally insane?

hris_kyle_eddie_ray_routhFormer Marine and Iraq War veteran Eddie Ray Routh shot and killed former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the subject of the popular movie ‘American Sniper.” Routh also killed a second man, Chad Littlefield, 35. The two victims were attempting to help troubled vets by taking them on outings, including to the shooting range in Erath County, Texas, where Routh fired the fatal shots.

Routh’s murder trial, now underway in Stephenville, Texas, is not a whodunit. Instead, as in many other high-profile homicide cases – George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson – the legal question is why he did it. Because the law requires a finding of mens rea, or criminal intent, jurors must get inside Routh’s mind. In this case, if Routh was legally insane at the time of the shooting, he cannot be convicted.

The insanity plea: How it works

The test is simple: Did Routh suffer from a severe mental disease or defect that prevented him from knowing his conduct was wrongful? That high legal bar is rarely met. As the prosecutor points out, 1 in 5 Americans has a mental health problem. But they don’t all get a pass.

Prosecutors will tell the jury to look at Routh’s behavior. After the shooting, Routh took Kyle’s car and fled. Doesn’t attempting to evade the law show he knew he had done wrong? Maybe.

Routh has a substantial history of mental illness, the defense contends, and was psychotic at the time of the shooting. He’d been hospitalized for psychiatric problems several times and had threatened to kill himself or others. Tragically, on his final day, while in the car with Routh, Kyle texted to Littlefield, “this dude is straight-up nuts.” In other words, it was obvious that Routh was troubled. That was the very reason he was with Kyle and Littlefield that day. He’s not making up mental illness now to beat a murder charge.

Hours after his arrest, Routh said in a babbling confession that he was struggling with unnamed forces “eating at his soul” and he rambled on about pigs and “talking to the wolf, the one in the sky.”

This was, no doubt, a very disturbed man.

Lack of healthcare and legal services for the mentally disturbed

Routh’s mother has said in interviews that she tried to get help for her son, but none was available to her. Routh also could not get proper treatment from the Veterans Affairs facility in Dallas. Poignantly, it was Kyle who stepped up and said he would help.

Much has been written about the lack of affordable services for vets, especially mental health services, which America is woefully deficient at providing its citizens. Like everyone at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, Routh and his family lacked access to lawyers to fight for health services. And so his condition deteriorated, untreated.

Today’s U.S. mental health system mirrors that of the 1830s

In the event Routh is convicted and incarcerated for the rest of his life, he will join more than 356,000 other Americans with mental illnesses behind bars – 10 times the number of mentally ill people receiving treatment in state hospitals. According to a recent report, these statistics have brought us back to the U.S. mental health system of the 1830s, when the mentally ill were incarcerated, rather than treated, at an overwhelming rate.

As states have slashed funding for mental health services in recent years, we now have the lowest number of psychiatric hospital beds since 1850. What insanity.

As a result, the mentally ill wind up in our prison system, where they are often subject to solitary confinement and are more likely to be abused, assaulted or raped by other inmates. Few services are available to help mentally ill inmates.

Apart from being callous and inhumane, it’s more expensive for us to house mentally ill folks in jails and prisons than in psychiatric facilities.

And, of course, treatment can save lives. No one can say for sure that, had services been available to Routh, he would not have killed anyone. But we do know that Kyle and Littlefield stepped in to help when no one else was extending a hand. And for that, they bore the ultimate price.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo. 

Photo via ABC News


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