The last time we checked in on American Sniper, it was merely shattering box office records for films that received their wide release in January. Since then, it’s catapulted to the #5 slot on the annual box office tally for movies that opened in 2014. It’s on pace, by the end of its theatrical run, to compete with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Guardians of the Galaxy for first place, and it is but a few days away from overtaking the Hangover films and The Matrix Reloaded to land second place on the list of the highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time (behind The Passion of the Christ).
The movie has become more than just a movie about Christ Kyle. It’s popularity has made it a referendum on patriotism and a certain school of American political thought. While Kyle has been an important figure in Texas for a long time, it wasn’t until the blockbuster success of American Sniper that the governor declared “Chris Kyle Day.” In the same way that the cultural role of Schindler’s List was less about Spielberg’s film and more about how we considered the holocaust, American Sniper’s current role in the national conversation is as much about America’s recent wars and the liberal-vs-conservative culture war as it is about the story that Eastwood and Bradley Cooper tell.
All of that raises an important question, though: The man accused of Chris Kyle is still awaiting trial. Potential jurors who, six months ago, may have had a dim awareness of Kyle based on his memoir are now living in a culture where opinions on the man are everywhere. And that makes finding an untainted jury pool a new challenge.
The defense attorney for Eddie Ray Routh, who stands accused of killing Kyle, has struggled with the fact that the man his client is alleged to have killed is suddenly a major figure in the American consciousness. As People reports:
“It’s going to be very difficult for him to get a fair trial, not only because of the movie, but because of the media surrounding the movie,” [Houston criminal defense attorney George Parnham] tells PEOPLE. “Mr. Kyle is a hero in many people’s eyes. Due to the fact that this movie has gained intense public attention, it’s doubtful that a fair jury can be selected anywhere.”
Parnham believes Routh’s legal team should contest the gag order. “The only thing people will know about him is what they see in the movie,” he says.
The gag order Parnham refers to was put in place by the judge in the case in 2013, preventing attorneys and family members from talking to the media to avoid influencing the jury pool in the high-profile case. At this point, though, that ship may have sailed.
Routh is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, and the facts of Kyle’s death make what is usually a difficult defense to wage fairly compelling: Kyle and his friend Chris Littlefield took Routh, a marine suffering from PTSD, to a shooting range as part of the outreach they were doing with troubled veterans. That’s when, it’s alleged, he shot and killed them.
Insanity defenses rarely work, even in cases where mental illness is documented. Juries aren’t known to be sympathetic to the idea that the person in front of them was not in control of his actions. And it’s valid to wonder if that’s an even harder defense to wage in a case when many potential jurors might view Kyle as a hero because they identify with Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of the man.
Of course, the fact that American Sniper exists isn’t the only thing that can taint the jury pool here. Even people reporting on the case struggle with how to present the situation. When Steve Doocy of Fox and Friends reported on Routh’s attorney seeking a change of venue, for example, he said on the air that “the man who killed Chris Kyle says the movie is impacting him too, because he’s facing a trial, and he wants to be fair.”
Legally speaking, of course, Routh right now is just the man charged with killing Chris Kyle, a fact that Fox’s lawyers may have overlooked. But attempting to discuss these things cleanly is tough—when People wrote about the same issue, K.C. Baker wrote a paragraph that reads:
On Feb. 2, 2013, nearly four years after Kyle quit the military, he and his friend, Chad Littlefield, were allegedly shot and killed on a Texas gun range while helping former Marine Eddie Ray Routh, then 25, cope with his PTSD. Routh’s trial is set to begin Feb. 11.
To be certain, that Kyle and Littlefield were shot and killed on the gun range is a plain fact of the case; nothing about that “allegedly” occurred, unless Baker means to suggest that they faked their deaths and are living on an island somewhere. What is merely an allegation at this point is that Routh is the one who shot and killed them.
These things aren’t mere semantics—the way we present the figures involved in high-profile crimes is important, and has a serious impact on the way juries view cases. The existence of American Sniper undoubtedly complicates the trial of Eddie Ray Routh. Whether there’s a way to mitigate that remains to be seen—perhaps allowing his attorney and family to tell a story about their client in the media will help, if a judge grants it. Perhaps there’s a venue for the trial out there that’s less likely to have opinions on Kyle, although given the film’s success, that’s hard to imagine. But in any case, the high-profile life and death of Chris Kyle means justice—whatever that may look like here—will be an elusive target.