American Sniper: A Trial Focused on Insanity

Dr. Manges PhD | Forensic Psychologist | Expert Witness

American Sniper: A Trial Focused on Insanity and NGRI

Many Americans have already enjoyed the popular Oscar nominated film – American Sniper. The film, based on the autobiography of the “American Sniper,” Chris Kelly, accurately describes the way Kelly’s life tragically ended on February 2nd, 2013. In an effort to cope with his own struggles assimilating back into civilian life, Kelly begins mentoring and working with other veterans. A veteran that he was trying to help took Kelly’s life at a shooting range. Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine, was convicted of killing Chris Kyle and a friend Chad Littlefield at a shooting range. Routh’s defense attorneys argued that Routh was mentally insane at the time of the murder. There were many complications interwoven with this particular insanity defense. States differ on the standard required to find a defendant NGRI (“Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity”). In Texas, where the trial is took place, the standard is whether “at the time of the conduct charged, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.” The Texas NGRI statute is very narrow; it needs to be clear that the individual did not know that his conduct was wrong. Other states have broader language which incorporates whether or not the individual could appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. The prosecution is argued that Routh knew what he was doing was wrong. Also, that he had been smoking marijuana and drinking in the morning prior to the shooting, resulting in “voluntarily intoxication.” Additionally, the prosecution showed the jury Routh’s taped confession a few hours after the shooting in which a Texas Ranger asks, “You know what you did today is wrong, right?” and the defendant responds “Yes, sir.”

Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI)

Unique to this situation, however, Routh had a diagnosed mental disorder before he raised the NGRI defense. Routh had a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of serving a tour of duty in the Iraq War. Expert witnesses poked holes in this diagnosis, however, because Routh never saw combat. It is important to note, though, that non-combat soldiers have been diagnosed with PTSD because of their time in a war zone and fear of imminent combat. The defense tried to argue that Routh’s disorder was so severe that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. The defense lawyers also urged the jury to disregard Routh’s confession because at the time he gave the confession he was not qualified to self-asses as to whether he knew what he did was right or wrong. Some experts commented that the connection between Routh’s alleged actions did not have a strong enough connection to his PTSD diagnosis to justify an NGRI verdict. Dr. Harry Croft, a psychiatrist who has evaluated over 7,000 veterans suffering from PTSD did not believe that the murders were “primarily” the result of Routh’s PTSD, saying “Did he have PTSD? Maybe, may not. Do I believe that having PTSD caused him to murder these two people? No.” However, Dr. Croft notes that it is possible that Routh was also suffering from psychosis or personality issues which may have created a strong enough connection between a mental disorder and his alleged actions. Ultimately, the jury agreed that the connection between Routh’s PTSD and the murders was not substantial enough to satisfy Texas’ narrow NGRI statute. Routh plans to appeal his conviction. The next blog will focus on how the jurors reached the conclusion that Routh was not insane at the time of the murders.

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