American Sniper: Mental Illness on Trial

24 February 2015
Published in Blog

By Seema Iyer, Esq.

Ferbruary 24, 2015

The real American Sniper, Chris Kyle, engaged in charitable work helping vets suffering from mental illness. And in that vain, thought it wise to take an ex-soldier with a history of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to a gun range. That move got him killed.  

Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine stands trial for murdering Chris Kyle and another military veteran, Chad Littlefield. The trial just happened to start weeks after the movie “American Sniper” was released. Quite coincidentally as well, the Oscars (the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards) were Sunday; the trial resumed Monday. Nicely played prosecutors.

It’s not a ‘who done it’. This only question is whether Routh was legally insane, at the time of the shooting, which would land him in a mental hospital, as opposed to prison.

And like in every other high-profile insanity trial, talking heads pontificate that insanity is almost impossible to prove. But no one ever says why. Here are some truths about using the insanity defense:

1. Most lawyers don’t understand mental illness but are expected to advocate their respective positions;

2. Many experts frame their opinion according to the side that is paying them because most defendants’ mental illness is not so black and white;

3. Jurors aren’t given enough time to be educated on insanity so it is just easier to convict;

4. When a defendant is on trial s/he is no longer as allegedly psychotic as during the incident (otherwise s/he would be incompetent to stand trial) thus the jury sees a ‘healthier’ person which hurts the defense case;

5. Many Jurors don’t care if the defendant is mentally ill; they’d rather see the person in prison than a hospital……especially if you murder an American “hero”.

I truly do not know if Mr. Routh is mentally ill or was legally insane at the time of the crime.

And I suspect at the conclusion of the trial we still won’t know.

The point of this piece is to address the flaws in the process of making that determination. Mental illness is complicated, nuanced – deep. It takes clinicians and physicians years if not decades to grasp its complexities. Yet we expect jurors to come to a verdict without the benefit of academics or training – or without ever even having had a conversation with the defendant.

And then there’s trial strategy.

The jurors were introduced to Routh as having PTSD but then each expert during the course of their testimony diagnosed Routh with having other types of mental illness. Defense says schizophrenia, which can be more successful than PTSD for an insanity defense, and the prosecution says mood disorder which wouldn’t prevent a person from distinguishing right from wrong (an element of the Texas insanity defense).

According to Jessica Pearson, a clinical psychologist specializing in forensics, “PTSD in conjunction with the insanity defense has been successful in the past….it works when there is a link between a particular set of PTSD symptoms and the instant offense, specifically, when the set of symptoms known as re-experiencing symptoms, especially flashbacks, are associated with the instant offense. For example, the veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD and has flashbacks where he is re-experiencing combat – he feels, thinks, smells, hears the combat environment and then engages in the offense….there can be triggering events that set off the flashback such as an actual event similar to those in combat (ie – noises).”

That certainly fits. Routh was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011. The offense occurred at a gun range where shooting akin to combat occurred.   Pearson adds, “I believe it is more successful when there is already an existing diagnosis of PTSD, prior to the crime.”

One of the biggest concerns when a defense attorney utilizes the insanity defense is malingering, or exaggerating illness. With PTSD many symptoms are self-reported, so malingering can be an issue, whereas with schizophrenia some behavior is observable. So, with respect to PTSD, getting information from collateral sources (friends, family, colleagues) who have observed the person experience flashbacks, nightmares, disrupted sleep, changes in mood, hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, is crucial. To that end, Routh’s mother and girlfriend testified about Routh’s behavior.

When Routh was arrested he said he was feeling “paranoid” and “schizophrenic” all day. A few problems with that statement. One, it sounds like feigning symptoms. Most truly ill people don’t have the insight into their illness to classify it with such particularity. Two, if he did know that he was feeling paranoid/schizophrenic then he had insight, he wasn’t that ill during the crime, and that insight, or awareness of his mental condition, should have prevented him from shooting the victims. And three, that statement may have been the impetus to pursue a defense based on schizophrenia rather than PTSD.

Hopefully the jurors have been made aware that a person can suffer from both PTSD and schizophrenia… do not want the jury to question the defense machinations.

After handling hundreds of cases with mentally ill clients what I have learned is that most individuals lie in a middle ground where one can argue either side of legal insanity, ergo the expert dilemma. There are very few people who are so gravely ill that both prosecution and defense agree the person was legally insane at the time of the crime.

This case amplifies not only the difficulties in defending the mentally ill but also in their treatment. Routh had been discharged shortly before the shooting from a Dallas veterans hospital in a reportedly unstable, heavily medicated, condition. Despite how much we know about the causal link between mental health and criminal behavior there are still no protections; not for the individual, not for society. There are scant alternatives other than jail or hospital if you are poor. And while being poor may bad, being poor and crazy…..well that’s simply put - a life sentence.


Seema Iyer is a criminal defense & civil rights attorney with her own lawfirm in NYC.  She hosts the weekly legal show "The Docket" on Shift by MSNBC‎.com.   S‎eema also appears frequently on television as a legal analyst. Follow her on Twitter @seemaiyeresq


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