American Sniper Trial: Mental Health and Criminal Justice


on trial for murder during a trip to a shooting range

The American Sniper movie captivated audiences the past few months in movie theaters across the country with its gripping portrayal of U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle. While the movie was receiving rave reviews, a real life drama was unfolding in a Texas court room. Eddie Ray Routh was on trial for the murder of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield during a trip to a shooting range. Littlefied and Kyle worked with veterans who were suffering from PTSD or otherwise struggling to return to civilian life. The two men met Routh after his mother reached out to them and organized the trip. Routh had been formally diagnosed with PTSD and suffered from psychotic episodes, though those were never formally diagnosed. Routh had been in and out of psychiatric wards for years and had become increasingly despondent in the months leading up to the murders. Family and friends had become so concerned for his safety they removed all weapons from their homes. Yet, despite a long, well documented history of mental illness, it took jurors less than three hours to return a guilty verdict deciding against a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial cast light on a confusing, often grey area in the criminal justice system, the interaction between the mentally ill and the law.

A defendant who may be struggling with a mental illness must undergo an initial competency determination before standing trial. Determining competency to stand trial is a separate inquiry from the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity and uses a much lower standard. Competency to stand trial is focused on the defendant’s mental status at the time of trial, not at the time of the offense.  To be found competent, a defendant must understand the proceedings against him; understand the charges against him and the roles of prosecutor, defense attorney and judge; and he must be able to assist his attorney in preparing a defense. The relatively low standard is designed to ensure as many criminal defendants as possible have their day in court while simultaneously protecting those individuals who are truly unable to understand the proceedings against them or aid their attorneys. A finding of incompetency is not the equivalent of a finding of not guilty. The defendant’s trial is usually postponed until the defendant is restored to competency.

Not guilty by reason of insanity is an affirmative defense argued at trial. Currently, states are split on the test to be used at trial for a jury to determine whether a defendant should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Texas, where Eddie Ray Routh was tried, uses the more restrictive test commonly referred to as the M’Naghten Standard. Under M’Naghten, a defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” Routh’s attorneys introduced evidence that Roth was suffering from PTSD and on medication commonly used to treat schizophrenia at the time of the murders. The attorneys also introduced text messages exchanged between Kyle and Littlefield that expressed concern over Routh’s mental status. Prosecutor’s combated such evidence by introducing evidence of Routh’s evasive behavior during and after his arrest that they believed suggested Routh knew what he had just done was wrong. Curiously, the legal standard of insanity is different from the definition of mental illness such that a person can be “insane” due to a diagnosed mental illness but still be found guilty if they knew what they were doing was wrong. Such odds are perhaps why the defense is rarely argued and even more rarely successful.

Ohio uses a slightly more expansive test for determining not guilty by reason of insanity. In Ohio, “one accused of criminal conduct is not responsible for such conduct if, at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he does not have the capacity either to know the wrongfulness of his conduct or conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.” This allows for a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict in cases where the defendant is “insane” due to a mental illness and still knew their conduct in committing the offense was wrong. Perhaps this more inclusive test is why Ohio law does not allow for a diminished capacity defense. A diminished capacity defense allows a defendant to argue they did not have the mental capacity necessary to form the specific intent required to commit the offense in question. The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly held the line between the criminally insane defendant and sane defendant is drawn at the point where the defendant is “so aberrational in their psychiatric characteristics that we choose to make the assumption that they incapable of possessing the specified state of mind.” The law simply does not take into account the wide range of mental capabilities between sane defendants.

The confusing landscape surrounding mental illness and the legal system makes it crucial for defendants to discuss any mental health issues with their attorney. Aside from issues involving competency and “insanity,” the criminal defense attorney must be aware of any mental health issues that contributed to their client committing the offense. Often times, these individuals have a “dual diagnosis,” i.e. a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder and a substance abuse issue. Although not a complete defense, defense counsel can work with psychologists and other licensed experts to mitigate the client’s actions and ask the court to consider counseling or therapy rather than a prison sentence.




If you need a lawyer for a criminal or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.


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