Since the release of the movie American Sniper a collective interest has surrounded the trial of Eddie Ray Routh, the killer of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield. Now that Routh’s trial is officially underway, his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity provokes a sense of, shall we say, injustice.
Less than 1% of defendants charged with homicide attempt the insanity plea, and about 25% of them are actually successful. This comes out to about 25 murderers annually in the United States who end up in a mental hospital rather than a prison. Nearly half of the residents in mental hospitals are there as a result of a crime conviction, misdemeanors and felonies alike.
So where does Routh fit in to this mix? How does his case compare to some of the most notorious insanity pleas and, based on what we currently know, will he be able to avoid prison?
1. Andrew Goldstein (1999)
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Exhibiting behavior consistent with schizophrenia, Andrew Goldstein shoved a woman into the path of an oncoming N train in New York. Prior to this murder he voluntarily attempted to check himself into a mental hospital 13 times, but was put on a waiting list due to overcrowding.
Verdict: Guilty – 25 years to life (he eventually admitted to being consciously aware of his actions)
2. and 3. Serial Killers Ed Gein and David Berkowitz
Nearly a dozen of the most infamous serial killers (including Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, and Kenneth Bianchi: the Hillside Strangler) pled insanity during their trials. Nearly all of them were determined to be insane, but only Ed Gein and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) were actually released to a mental hospital, temporarily. They were both eventually transferred to prison.
4. Jonathan Schmitz (1994)
During an appearance on the Jenny Jones Show, Jonathan Schmitz was introduced to a surprise crush who turned out to be his male friend Scott Amedure. Three days later Amedure left Schmitz a suggestive note, which triggered in Schmitz what is referred to as the gay panic defense. Schmitz proceeded to purchase a shotgun and murder Amedure.
Verdict: Guilty – 2nd degree murder (25 years)
5. Dan White (1979)
According to his lawyer, Dan White was a health nut before he gradually sank into a state of depression and began self-medicating with junk food. After White assassinated the mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk, the press dubbed his insanity plea the “Twinkie Defense.”
Verdict: Guilty – manslaughter (5 years) – protests following the verdict led to Proposition 8, which abolished the judicial term “diminished capacity,” which bred leniency towards the accused.
6. Murder of Gwen Araujo (2002)
After performing oral sex on one man and receiving anal sex from another, it was revealed that Gwen Araujo was actually a man undergoing hormone therapy and living as a woman. The two men who were intimate with her, as well as two other accomplices, became enraged (e.g. the “gay panic defense”) and proceeded to brutally torture and eventually murder Araujo (hate crime penalty enhancement was sought and ultimately rejected for this case).
Verdict: Hung jury (during the re-trial the “gay panic defense” was rejected, and two of the defendants were found guilty of 2nd degree murder)
7. Andrea Yates (2002)
Supposedly because of postpartum psychosis, Andrea Yates drowned her children in a bathtub. A graduating valedictorian, Yates suffered from bulimia and depression, was suicidal, and was warned by her psychiatrist not to have more children. Seven weeks after this warning her fifth child was conceived and Yates stopped taking her meds. Approximately a year later she snapped.
Verdict: Guilty… initially (during the appeal the insanity plea was invoked and Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and released to a mental hospital)
8. Steven Steinberg (1981)
Steven Steinberg woke up to discover his wife had been stabbed 26 times. After calling the police, under the assumption that a burglar was responsible, he discovered that he in fact killed his wife while sleep walking – a.k.a. the “sleepwalking defense.”
Verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity (others have attempted the “sleepwalking defense,” but not all have been successful)
9. John Hinckley, Jr (1981)
After watching the movie Taxi Driver 15 times, John Hinckley became obsessed with actress Jodie Foster to the point of relocating halfway across the country to stalk her. As a symbol of what Hinckley would describe as “the greatest love offering in the history of the world,” Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
Verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity
10. Tonda Lynn Ansley (2002)
Tonda Lynn Ansley, most likely a schizophrenic, shot and killed the woman she was renting a room from because she believed her landlady was conspiring to kill her, along with the theory that we are all just virtual simulations inside a computer – a.k.a. the “Matrix defense.”
Verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity (two others have used this same defense – Vadim Mieseges and Lee Malvo, but only Meiseges was successful).
11. Laura Sorenson (2012)
Laura Sorenson was so insane that the prosecutor essentially pled “no contest” and the case never went to trial. Sorensen displayed symptoms of mental illness as early as elementary school, was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, attempted suicide, tried to stab her step-father, and attempted arson, all before the age of 19. Repeated attempts to commit her were oddly rejected. At the age of 21 she thought she was hunting pedophiles, starting a revolution, and growing wings when she walked into a market and shot three people (one died).
Verdict: Not guilty by reason of insanity
Back to Eddie Routh: how does his defense stack up with this array of insanity pleas? If you ask Routh’s aunt, she would tell you that the murder of Kyle and Littlefield was “…not Eddie. That’s not who he is.” Routh was occasionally suicidal, and diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD (even though military records indicate that he never actually saw combat during his Iraq tour). After leading police on a high-speed chase, he told the arresting officer that he had to “kill the men and take their souls before they took his.”
There’s a 12th insanity plea case we should consider, as we consider Eddie Routh’s plea (the 13th on our list): Anthony Nicholas Orban. In 2010, former police detective and Iraq war veteran Anthony Orban, who was on Zoloft to treat his PTSD, blamed a near overdose for his kidnapping and brutal rape of a young waitress. His psychiatrist testified to Orban’s schizophrenic-like behavior, as Orban believed he was possessed by demons and thought about killing himself and his wife. Verdict: Guilty of kidnapping, rape, and sexual assault.
Chris Kyle was considered a national war hero, was actually trying to help Routh, and the trial is in Texas of all places. It is safe to say that the chances of Routh ending up in a strait-jacket, as opposed to an orange jumpsuit, seem highly unlikely.