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Proceedings Underway In 'American Sniper' Trial


Here at home, the latest chapter in a tragedy involving the lives of two U.S. veterans. Former Navy SEAL and legendary sniper Chris Kyle was killed along with a friend in 2013. And opening arguments begin today in Texas in what's become known as the "American Sniper" murder trial.


That's because the blockbuster movie "American Sniper" is based on Chris Kyle's life. The man accused of killing him is former Marine Corporal Eddie Ray Routh. He confessed to the killing but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

GREENE: NPR's Wade Goodwyn will be covering today's arguments and joins us on the line. Good morning to you, Wade.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So take us back, if you can, first to Feb. 2, 2013. What happened?

GOODWYN: Well, that Saturday morning, Chris Kyle - he was trying to help Marine Eddie Routh. Routh had been suffering mental health issues and seemed to be getting worse. He'd been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, and he had to be hospitalized twice for psychiatric problems leading up to this moment. Routh had threatened to kill himself and his family. He got into some trouble with law enforcement. And according to his family members, he was becoming increasingly paranoid and delusional.

So his mother, Jodi Routh - he was a teacher's aide at the school where Chris Kyle's children went - asked Kyle if he could meet with her son and try to help him, you know, find some way to feel better, and Kyle said yes. So that morning, Kyle brought along a friend, Chad Littlefield, and they picked up Routh and went to the local gun range to shoot and hang out. Now, that may sound a little surprising under the circumstances, but for many Texas vets, going to the range is just like going to the bowling alley or the golf course. So it's a male bonding activity. But of course, there are weapons.

Nobody knows exactly what happened. They were at a very rural firing range, but about two hours after they'd arrived, an employee found Kyle and Littlefield shot to death and Kyle's pickup truck gone. Routh led law enforcement on a short chase, then surrendered and confessed to the shootings.

GREENE: OK, confessed but is now pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Does his defense have a case?

GOODWYN: Well, I think they do have a case to make. But legal experts in Texas say it's going to be an uphill slog. Clearly, Routh has documented mental health difficulties leading up to the murders. That will aid the defense. Routh's statements and actions after the shootings, however, cut both ways. You know, he went to his sister's house and babbled incoherently that people were sucking his soul and he could smell the pigs. But he'd also stolen Kyle's truck and on the way out told his brother-in-law that he'd sold his soul for a pickup truck. That sure sounds like somebody who understands the difference between right and wrong and in Texas, that means you're not legally insane. And running from the law is not going to help his case, either.

GREENE: Well, the defense has worried that it might not be possible for them to get a fair trial in Stephenville, which is a town southwest of Fort Worth. What was their worry there?

GOODWYN: Well, Stephenville is a very conservative and patriotic community. And Kyle was nothing short of the local superstar. Then the movie came out, and Kyle's standing was burnished even further. During jury selection, candidates were dismissed because they told the judge they'd already made up their mind that he was guilty.

There are a couple different questions here. Would Routh get a better shot at a fair trial in a city like Austin or San Antonio or Houston, where the jury pool would likely to be more politically and culturally diverse? The other question is whether the movie, "American Sniper," has essentially poisoned, if you will, the jury pool everywhere. So it doesn't really matter where the trial takes place. For example, last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared Feb. 2 as Chris Kyle Day in the state, and flags flew at half-staff all over. So that's the context. The judge and the lawyers have tried to pick jurors who will still have an open mind in spite of all the publicity and in spite of their feelings about the victims in the case.

GREENE: We've been speaking to NPR's Wade Goodwyn about opening arguments that begin today in what's known as the "American Sniper" trial in Texas. Wade, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: That's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.

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