The conviction of Eddie Ray Routh in the “American Sniper” trial is more evidence that we need to reform the insanity defense. Because this guy was a first class whacko. This guy had serious mental health problems. He was diagnosed to have paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been committed on a number of occasions to psychiatric hospitals, and had been treated at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Dallas. Routh allegedly believed Chris and the other shooting victim, Chad Littlefield, were “pig assassins sent to kill others.”
In the United States, there are several variations on the insanity defense, and a few states don’t allow it at all. I’m no expert on Texas, but it’s likely that Texas follows the “M’Naghten Rule“. That rule allows the insanity defense only in a case where the defendant could not distinguish between right and wrong or appreciate the nature of what they were doing. The rule was established by the English House of Lords in the mid-19th Century; in other words, a group that by modern standards knew almost nothing at all about mental health.
Now, even if you’re completely insane, most people can still distinguish between right and wrong, or know that something they were doing was wrong in some way. So Chris Kyle knew enough to flee the scene after he shot Kyle and Littlefield. The proscutors made much out of the fact that Routh went to a Taco Bell in Kyle’s truck and ordered himself lunch because he was hungry. In actuality, that does kind of prove that this guy was insane, because he didn’t even have enough sense to go on the run.
For Chris Kyle, Chad Littlefield and their families, this is an absolute tragedy. We should all feel a great deal of compassion for their loss. But incarcerating for life a man who also served with distinction in the military, a man who was clearly undone by his experiences and betrayed by his mind, is not going to bring Kyle and Littlefield back.
It is well known within the corrections community that our prisons and jails have now become the largest network of mental health “institutions” in our country. And they are woefully unequipped to deal with the mental health needs of the inmates there.
It’s really time that we adopted a 21st century approach to insanity in the criminal context, and provided those with serious mental health issues at least the possibility of recovery. Regardless of how good it feels to send someone like Eddie Ray Routh “up the river” for life.