March 3, 2015
Book adaptation too popular for fair trial
by Josh Cohen
On February 2, 2013, former marine Eddie Ray Routh shot and killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield at a gun range in Erath County, Texas. Routh’s trial on capital murder charges, for which the defense pled not guilty by reason of insanity, began at the county seat of Stephenville on February 11, 2015; after two weeks of proceedings and about two hours of jury deliberation, Routh was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Former Navy SEAL Kyle’s American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History hit shelves in January 2012. The film version of Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper, had a limited release last Christmas before opening wide on January 16, 2015. It immediately dominated the box office, per Forbes; its $89.5 million three-day debut blew away the previous January best, placed just behind The Matrix Reloaded for biggest R-rated opening ever, and beat The Passion of the Christ for the biggest straight drama opener in history. His memoir returned to the top spot on The New York Times’ Nonfiction Best Sellers list; it had only reached that peak twice before: first when it was published, and again when he was killed. Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared February 2, 2015, the two-year anniversary of the Navy SEAL’s death, “Chris Kyle Day.” According to boxoffice.com, Sniper had made nearly $300 million in domestic ticket sales before Routh’s trial began on February 11, a mark the movie has since surpassed.
Individually, these are all facts, down to the identity of the man who ended Kyle’s and Littlefield’s lives; the defense never denied that Routh was the man who killed them. How these facts are interpreted together, and the conclusions drawn from their synthesis, is not nearly as simple.
The New York Times reports Routh’s lawyers plan to appeal his guilty verdict, and that they will argue in part that Kyle’s popularity, directly tied to American Sniper, biased the jury.
One of Mr. Routh’s lawyers, Warren St. John, said Thursday that he believed more than half of the 12 jurors had seen “American Sniper,” which was released three weeks before the trial started in Stephenville, Tex.
“They stated prior to being on the jury it didn’t, but I clearly do think it had an effect,” Mr. St. John said. “He had the label of an American hero, ‘American Sniper,’ decorated war veteran. I think it affected their ability to be fair and impartial.”
Now we’re getting into matters of belief and cultural footprint. Saying “it clearly had an effect” allows St. John to dispute that the jurors didn’t see Sniper without explicitly calling them liars, but it does something more: it lets St. John imply Sniper’s blockbuster status and the political discourse surrounding it could influence a juror who had really not seen the movie; even those who hadn’t seen or read his story very likely had heard the charged talk surrounding Kyle and the film, and the Texan jurors had Chris Kyle Day in their state just nine days before the trial began.
In this case, it seems—and seems is all we can really say for sure—that the truth is falling somewhere in the middle.
After the verdict was handed down, two jurors—which is something, but not six—told ABC News that they had seen Sniper prior to their selection for this case, and had been forthright with that information to lawyers on both sides in a preliminary questionnaire.
Juror Barrett Hutchinson told ABC News today the questionnaire “specifically asked … could you put [your views on the film] to the wayside and make a fair and impartial judgment based on only the facts presented? And me personally, that’s one of the things I processed and told myself I could do.”
“I laid it out on the questionnaire, told them my thoughts on it and in the end, they picked me for a juror,” he said.
Fellow juror Stephanie Templeton said that the movie was “awesome” but didn’t have any direct connection to the case.
“It was basically a movie through the eyes of the sniper and his family, and it really didn’t have anything to do with Mr. Routh or the killings,” Templeton told ABC News. “I mean the screen went black and you saw the procession. It didn’t have any information about the capital murder case that we served on.”
The jury-of-one’s-peers method of judgment, like any other, is predicated on trust—that one’s peer doesn’t have prejudices one way or another that would affect a trial’s fair outcome. It’s one of the simplest, most fundamental implements of our judicial system, but thinking of it that way undersells how hopelessly unknowable any individual’s perspective can be.
Nothing from Barrett Hutchinson’s quote says he’s biased, insofar as what he says is that the movie did not bias him. Whether or not that’s true no one can say with any authority; is his impartial view genuine, or the product of wishful thinking? Neither answer is certain, in part because his belief in his impartiality is presented without his opinion on the film. Having Stephanie Templeton on record saying Sniper was “awesome” sounds like her view of Kyle, his life, and his war hero image have been in part shaped by the movie, even though it depicted nothing of Routh’s shooting; in a trend for 2014 film, Kyle’s prominent death was reserved for postscript, told rather than shown.
It’s not unreasonable to think that the portrayal of a true patriot could influence a given person’s judgment of someone charged with that true patriot’s tragic demise before his time. Even if there’s no damning piece of evidence that proves the jury was biased against Routh, doubt exists, and not without cause.
The more you look at Kyle’s life—or really anyone’s, but Kyle’s in particular—the less anything seems certain. Kyle told a number of less-than-truths in his time: Among other things, he claimed to have gunned down looters in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and he wrote that he punched out Jesse Ventura. The former Minnesota governor sued Kyle for defamation and won in July 2014; in a deposition given before his death, Kyle acknowledged not every detail in his memoir was true.
On a poetic note, even his legendary head count is not totally accurate. His 160 “confirmed” kill tally is actually a misnomer; U.S. Special Operations Corps only considers a kill confirmed if it has a witness, so all sniper kills are technically unofficial. Not that that would make Kyle any less prolific; his probable kill number, which adds his regular unconfirmed kills to the confirmed-in-name ones, stands at 255.
Amidst all the deaths and murky details surrounding Chris Kyle’s story, one of the few things we do know for sure is that Eddie Ray Routh killed him, killed and Chad Littlefield, too.
The defense argued that Routh, a heavy drug user who claimed pig men were going to kill him and cannibals eat him, should be put at the mercy of a mental hospital rather than a prison. It is practically impossible to confirm or deny the genuineness of those claims; the prosecution countered that they were attempts to portray an otherwise sane man as schizophrenic.
The prosecution might be right, and the jury, in its speedy deliberation, might have come to a just decision for Kyle, his family, and his memory. But this is Eddie Ray Routh’s story, the determination of his guilt and his sanity. There is not a bit heroic about what he did, but if Kyle is precast as the hero in the jury’s eyes, Routh naturally becomes the villain.
To have a murder trial whose victim is the subject of a blockbuster movie and a best-selling memoir, both of which peaked in popularity in the immediate lead-up to the trial, is unprecedented. Distance from American Sniper seems necessary to ensure a jury can fairly judge Routh and his demons, real or contrived, without predisposition for the famous man who lost his life.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.