Category Archives: Our Rights

Define Insanity – The American Sniper Trial

I have been working on another article for my blog, but last night I saw a story in headlines which I felt the need to address in a timely manner. After a nine day trial and 2 ½ hours of jury deliberation, Eddie Ray Routh, a troubled 27 year old former Marine,  and Iraq War vet was found guilty of the murders of Christopher Scot Kyle (38) and his friend Chad Littlefield (35). Well, actually it was less than 2 ½ hours since that includes the time the jury spent eating dinner before starting deliberations. Thus ended the trial of the man accused of killing Chris Kyle, a true American hero and the subject of the blockbuster movie, American Sniper.

When I heard about the verdict I remembered that days earlier I saw portions of Routh’s taped confession on TV.  Early on Routh talked about the “dozens of Chris’ in his world” and then went on to say “every time I talk to a man named Chris or get sent to a man name Chris, it is like talking to the wolf, you know? The ones in the sky are the ones that fly. The Pigs’.   Later on he says, “…there tons of people eating on my soul right now.” When the interrogator asked him which of the men he shot first, Routh replied, “The one I could identify, I knew that if I did not take out his soul, he was coming to take mine next”. Later in the interrogation Routh said several times that he knew that killing the two men was wrong.

I came away with the strong feeling that if anyone is insane, Eddie Ray Routh certainly fits the bill. Later I learned that before his death Chris Kyle agreed with me. On the way to the gun range where they were killed, Kyle texted Littlefield saying that Routh appeared “nuts”. Little did he know how nuts Routh really was. I also later learned that since his honorable discharge from the Marines, Routh had been in and out of VA hospitals and had been diagnosed with severe psychoses and paranoia in addition to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have to admit to being somewhat naïve because as I heard additional news about the trial I kept thinking myself, if Routh wasn’t insane at the time of the murders, why in the world would he murder two people that he barely knew who showed him nothing but kindness and were trying to help him? To date no one has come up with a satisfactory answer to that question.

At the end of the day what sealed Routh’s fate was the State of Texas’ very narrow legal definition of “insanity” when applied to a crime. In Texas, and about half of the other states, for a defendant to be eligible to be judged not guilty by reason of insanity, the defense has to demonstrate that at the time of the offense the defendant was not capable of distinguishing between right or wrong. With the defense having to clear such a high hurtle, at the conclusion of Routh’s trial, the jury had little trouble agreeing on a guilty verdict for the person that killed a home town boy who had become a national hero.

Now it didn’t help that during his interrogation Routh said he knew what he did was wrong and that he had been drinking and smoking marijuana before the killings. It also didn’t help that he ran from the scene of killings. In addition, the jury was obviously moved when Kyle’s pretty wife took the stand and talked about her last moments with her husband, breaking down on the stand. Of course many mentally ill people try to self medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs and Routh’s attempt to “escape” is more easily explained by his paranoia rather than because he knew the difference between right and wrong. In interviews with members of the jury after the verdict was rendered, they related that they believed that Routh was faking insanity. Of course they did not try to explain why if he was smart enough to try to fake insanity, he wasn’t smart enough to avoid saying that he knew what he did was wrong, which of course was one of the things that did him in.

Whatever other factors were involved in the trial, I keep coming back to the question that cannot be answered which goes to motive. Why did Eddie Ray Routh kill Christopher Kyle and Chad Littlefield if he was not insane? In my mind that question has no answer except that Routh was insane at the time of the murders. However, that basic question did not have to be answered in that Texas courthouse because of the way Texas and many other states legally define insanity.

Doing some research I found it interesting the how the “M’Naghten rule” which Texas uses – not knowing right from wrong – originated. Here is the explanation I found on the Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute website,

The first famous legal test for insanity came in 1843, in the M’Naghten case. Englishman Daniel M’Naghten shot and killed the secretary of the British Prime Minister, believing that the Prime Minister was conspiring against him. The court acquitted M’Naghten “by reason of insanity,” and he was placed in a mental institution for the rest of his life. However, the case caused a public uproar, and Queen Victoria ordered the court to develop a stricter test for insanity.

The “M’Naghten rule” was a standard to be applied by the jury, after hearing medical testimony from prosecution and defense experts. The rule created a presumption of sanity, unless the defense proved “at the time of committing the act, the accused 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.”

I think that it is telling that M’Naghten rule for defining insanity used by so many states was brought about by a public uproar at a time when not much was known about how the human mind works or about the diseases which can twist its thinking in frightening ways. Although today we know a great deal more about mental diseases such as psychoses and paranoia, in many states the M’naghten rule persists even today because there is a very human need to hold people fully accountable for their crimes regardless of the circumstances involved.

That is not to say that there have not been an attempts to redefine the legal meaning of insanity in light of our more enlighten knowledge of the diseases of the mind. In 1972 the American Law Institute, which is a panel of legal experts, offered a slightly more liberal version of insanity which became part of what the Institute called the Model Criminal Code. That definition reads, “Because of a diagnosed mental defect, defendant either failed to understand the criminality of his acts, or was unable to act within the confines of the law.” A number of states have adopted this newer, slightly more enlightened definition.

On the other hand in four states, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah, a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is not allowed. However, in at least in Idaho, Montana, and Utah a defendant can plead guilty by reason of insanity. A verdict of guilty by reason of insanity usually results in the defendant spending the rest of his or her life in a mental institution, which, in practice isn’t much different from many of the other states. However, in Kansas there is no opportunity to mount an insanity defense. There are obviously no insane people in Kansas.

While we can each point to several high profile cases where the insanity defense was used, statistically that defense is used in less than one out of every one hundred cases. In addition, when it is used it is only successful in only a small fraction of the time. I believe the way our criminal justice system treats the criminally insane is an indication that we are not that far removed from the times when mental illness was equated with possession by the devil.

Oh, we don’t believe in things like that anymore, but for too many people severe mental illness of a loved one is still an embarrassment, something not to be discussed outside of the family, and then only in whispers. While intellectually we know that mental illness is no less a disease than those which attack our bodies, we really don’t treat it that way. Mental illness still carries a stigma, and far too many people automatically tend to think of diseases of the mind as excuses for escaping responsibility of guilt in criminal cases.

The law often lags well behind changes in social opinion. While segregation was codified into the laws of many states, it wasn’t until well after a large portion of the population came to the opinion that the practice was wrong that the laws finally changed. The same can be said about the laws which disallowed gay marriage. It appears that we have a long way to go before we as a people gain the insight needed to have proper attitudes about the mentally ill. I suspect that it will be even longer before our legal definition of insanity becomes more logical and just.

Cajun    2/25/15