The trial of the man charged with killing former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is scheduled to open here at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The blockbuster war movie about Kyle, “American Sniper,” now playing at a theater three miles from the courtroom, will be showing at 3:40 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10:20 p.m.
The convergence of the movie, the trial and the fierce emotions both have stirred up have set this rural town 100 miles southwest of Dallas on edge, as legal experts have questioned whether Eddie Ray Routh, the mentally ill veteran accused of killing Kyle and Kyle’s friend at a shooting range in Stephenville’s Erath County in 2013, can receive a fair trial here.
But aside from the questions about the legal proceedings, something more than a double-murder trial is set to play out in Stephenville this week. “American Sniper” has become a cultural moment far beyond the reach of the book, the movie or the criminal case against Routh.
And just as the movie has been debated for what it says about war and warriors, the trial will dissect what war did to and for two men — one of them hailed, particularly in Texas, as an American hero; the other a fellow veteran on trial for two murders that Texans are still trying to comprehend two years later.
Kyle’s celebrity hangs over the trial and the town, larger in death than it was in life. Long before joining the Navy, Kyle had attended Tarleton State University in Stephenville. The sign outside the Grand Entry Western Store advertises Chris Kyle baseball caps for sale.
Ominously, a man called the local newspaper, The Stephenville Empire-Tribune, and told the managing editor a bomb was going to go off before jury selection. Officials have earmarked $1 million for security in and around the courthouse where the trial will be held.
The jury was selected Monday: 10 women and two men. With the movie grossing nearly $300 million amid the attention paid to the Kyle case, officials called in more than four times as many potential jurors as they would for a regular trial.
Erath County District Attorney Alan Nash said it was hard not to know about the movie, but that seeing it wouldn’t disqualify a potential juror.
Nash asked potential jurors if they were unable to set aside what they’d already heard about their case. No one raised a hand.
Routh’s lawyers have included the movie and the local support for Kyle in their legal case, asking the judge to postpone the trial. They cited the movie’s release in local theaters, the bomb threat and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to declare Feb. 2, the two-year anniversary of Kyle’s death, Chris Kyle Day in Texas.
Erath County District Judge Jason Cashon denied the lawyers’ request.
Lawyers for Routh, 27, also asked the judge to move the proceedings out of Erath County, describing “so great a prejudice” against their client that he could not get a fair trial. Cashon was expected to turn down that motion as well, but it was clear last week as prospective jurors crowded the courtroom that he had concerns about the publicity surrounding the case
“Stay away from it,” he told them bluntly.
Kyle, who became the military’s deadliest sniper while protecting Marines in Iraq, took Routh to the range on Feb. 2, 2013. Kyle often used trips to the range as a form of therapy for wounded and troubled veterans. Once there, Routh turned his handgun on Kyle, 38, and Kyle’s friend, Chad Littlefield, 35, and then fled in Kyle’s truck, authorities said.
Routh has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have told the judge they planned to raise an insanity defense. Routh, a former Marine who served in Iraq, told the authorities in the months before the shooting that he was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The death happening here, that makes it more personal,” said Chick Elms, 68, the co-owner of the Grand Entry, a Western wear shop. “They’re not seeking the death penalty, which I think is hogwash.”
The trial, expected to last two weeks, will unfold in a building near the town’s life-size statue of Moo-La, a plastic cow celebrating the county’s status, in 1972, as the state’s top milk producer.
“We’ve never had anything like this in this town,” said Carol Gibson, 64, the owner of the Rockin’ P Bar and Grill across from the courthouse. “When it first happened, everybody was talking about it. Then it calmed down. Now the movie’s come out, the trial’s getting closer and the talk is back up about it again.”
The movie has only heightened Kyle’s stature in Texas. His memorial service was held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, his flag-draped coffin resting on the giant blue star at the 50-yard line. He was buried in Austin at the Texas State Cemetery, alongside former Texas governors and senators.
“If ever there were grounds for an out-of-state change of venue, this has to be the case,” said Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis lawyer who is an expert on defending veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in criminal cases. “The tough-minded Texas culture would make it difficult enough, but this veteran has the additional burden of having killed a bona fide Texas hero.”
Other lawyers disagreed.
“I’m not sure that knowing who the victim is, or having an opinion about the victim, necessarily means that the accused can or cannot get a fair trial,” said Anthony G. Buzbee, a Houston trial lawyer who handles high-profile cases, including defending former Gov. Rick Perry in his continuing criminal case. “Setting aside the movie or the book, what Chris Kyle was about and the fact that he was trying to assist the accused at the time of the alleged crime will make it a difficult case to defend no matter where it is tried. But that is just the facts of the case that create that difficulty, not a movie or venue.”
Hours after his arrest, Routh confessed to the murders in an interview with authorities that was videotaped and later played at a pretrial hearing. Routh told a Texas Ranger, Danny L. Briley, that he was struggling with unnamed forces “eating at his soul,” and rambled at times about pigs and “talking to the wolf, the one in the sky.”
Routh said neither Kyle nor Littlefield knew he was going to shoot them, and that the one he shot first was “the one I could clearly identify,” referring to Kyle. “I knew if I did not take his soul, he was going to take mine,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.