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Judge: Seeing ‘American Sniper’ may not disqualify potential jurors

This photo provided by the Erath County Sheriff’s Office shows Eddie Ray Routh. He was charged with murder in connection with a shooting at a central Texas gun range that killed former Navy SEAL and "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013.

ERATH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

By MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 5, 2015

STEPHENVILLE, Texas — A Texas judge told potential jurors in the murder trial of the man accused of shooting “American Sniper” author and Navy Seal Chris Kyle that reading the victim’s book or seeing the popular movie would not automatically disqualify them from the case.

The suspect, Eddie Ray Routh, 27, has been charged with two counts of murder and one count of capital murder in connection with the shootings of Kyle, 38, and his friend Chad Littlefield, 35, killed two years ago when the trio went to a firing range for target practice.

Routh appeared in court Thursday for the first day of jury selection looking nothing like the mug shot taken when he was arrested soon after the shootings. The former Marine had shaved his shaggy brown hair and appeared to have gained some weight. He wore glasses, a blue blazer and oxford shirt and appeared calm as he chatted with his attorneys in front of prospective jurors.

Courthouse security had been stepped up for the high-profile trial. Potential jurors had to leave cellphones and bags in their cars, pass through two metal detectors and police dogs. More than a dozen members of law enforcement stood in and outside the courtroom.

A bomb threat against the courthouse was called in to the local newspaper Jan. 26. The sheriff’s office is still investigating, according to Chief Deputy Jason Upshaw, among first responders at the scene of the shooting Feb. 2, 2013.

State troopers temporarily closed a stretch of the main highway through town Thursday morning when sheriff’s deputies escorted Routh to court from the nearby county jail, where he has been held on $3 million bail, Upshaw said.

Kyle became legendary for his prowess as a sniper during his four tours in Iraq, stoked by the “American Sniper” autobiography published after his return. The book was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper. The film is still in theaters, where it became a sleeper hit across the heartland, particularly in Texas.

Stephenville, about 100 miles southwest of Dallas, is a college town in largely rural Erath County, with a population of about 40,000. The first potential jurors called were mostly white, including some gun owners wearing camouflage hunting caps and jackets.

District Judge Jason Cashon excused and disqualified 21 people in the morning, including half a dozen who said they had already made up their mind about the defendant’s guilt.

Chris Conway, 40, of Stephenville was dismissed after he told the judge he had already become convinced of Routh’s guilt.

Conway, the band director at a local middle school, said he followed news of Kyle’s death and considered him a hero.

He knew that Routh’s attorneys plan to mount an insanity defense, potentially based on Routh’s service in Iraq and Haiti and subsequent treatment at VA facilities for what relatives described as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I didn’t buy it,” Conway said.

Vietnam veteran Joe McCartney of Stephenville told the judge he didn’t think he could serve on the jury because he is being treated for PTSD.

McCartney, 63, a former Marine sniper, said he has been suicidal but received plenty of help from veteran’s hospitals and had little sympathy for Routh.

“There’s stuff out there he could have done other than what he done,” McCartney said after he was excused by the judge.

Other people were released for reasons such as illness, work, child care and illiteracy.

Lucas Burch, who teaches at an online university, was excused because he is scheduled to leave soon for a school trip to Costa Rica and Italy. Burch, 33, of Stephenville, had seen “American Sniper” and followed news of the case.

The district attorney is not seeking the death penalty, but Routh faces the possibility of life without parole.

“I don’t know if I would want to be on that type of a trial with a man’s life on the line,” Burch said.

Burch, who came to court carrying an earmarked copy of historian David McCullough’s “1776,” said Erath County has “a large number of educated people who care about their country.”

“I would hope they would be as fair as they can,” Burch said. “It’s something we all follow in the news.”

“Everyone has heard about the case,” said accountant Sherilyn Svien, 59, who walks with a cane and was excused Thursday for medical reasons.

So far, 800 potential jurors have been summoned, and those who were not released Thursday were asked to return Monday to be questioned by the lawyers involved, all of whom were in court Thursday.

Svien said she would have liked to have served on the jury deciding Routh’s fate.

“He certainly can get justice. Out of the 800 jurors, I’m sure they can find 12 who have not concluded what they would do,” Svien said as she left court. “This is not a hick town, despite what people may think. We try to do the right thing. This is a town of high moral character.”

Legal experts said one of the challenges in picking a jury will be screening out those so eager to participate that they try to conceal their biases.

Nathan Goldberg, 33, had hoped he could serve on the jury, but told the judge he had moved outside the county and was automatically disqualified.

Goldberg, a technology worker, is an Army veteran who crossed paths with Kyle in Iraq. He has also suffered from PTSD from his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was a forward observer, he said.

“Having an understanding of both sides, I thought I might have a good perspective,” on the case, Goldberg said. But the veteran said he spoke with others summoned Thursday who also had military experience.

Standing outside the courthouse, Goldberg remembered Kyle as the consummate soldier and “a hell of a shot.”

“But it was really his wanting to look out for the guys on the ground that made him a legend,” he said.

As he left, Goldberg said he hoped the trial would result in justice for both men.

“I would like to see that Eddie Ray gets the help that he needs,” he said.

As Cashon dismissed prospective jurors Thursday, who would file out past a bank of television and still cameras, he reminded them that they will be returning Monday to be questioned again by lawyers involved in the case, a process called voir dire.

Once the trial starts Wednesday, relatives of the accused and the victims are expected to in court. The judge has issued a gag order barring those involved in the case from discussing it.

“There’s going to be a lot of publicity,” Cashon told the potential jurors before they left. “Stay away from it.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times
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The courtroom where the trail will be held is empty on Feb. 4, 2015 in Stephenville, Texas. Jury selection in the capital murder trial of Eddie Routh, who is accused of killing American Sniper author Chris Kyle, and Chad Littlefield in February 2013 at an Erath County gun range, begins on Thursday in Stephenville.
PAUL MOSELEY/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/TNS