How 'American Sniper' Could Complicate the Murder Trial of Chris Kyle's Killer

In the wake of the record-breaking box office for the Clint Eastwood film, the defendant's attorney asks, "Can there be a fair trial?"
 Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated American Sniper set off a $105 million box-office frenzy this weekend with potential ramifications in a capital murder case.

On Feb. 11, Eddie Ray Routh is scheduled to stand trial for killing Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL played by Bradley Cooper in the film. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Routh, who confessed to shooting the deadliest sniper in American history and Kyle's friend Chad Littlefield two years ago at a rifle range southwest of Dallas. Routh, a former Marine, plans to introduce evidence that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and mount an insanity defense, but the enormous profile of Kyle in the wake of American Sniper's success could present some complications.

The Warner Bros. film "is going to be an issue," J. Warren St. John, Routh's attorney, tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. "Can there be a fair trial?"

Read more The Making of 'American Sniper'

Although American Sniper doesn't depict Kyle's death (it's based on the best-selling book written by Kyle before he died), the movie presents its subject as a hero — one who is often referred to simply as "Legend" throughout the movie. The film traces Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq as well as his attempts to later counsel in-need veterans through the FITCO Cares Foundation. American Sniper also presents the fact that Routh's mother reached out to Kyle. Without using names, the movie states right before the credits roll that Kyle was killed by a veteran he was trying to help.

American Sniper stops there, and maybe for good reason.

In July 2013, the judge in the Routh case issued a protective order. Citing the "unusually emotional nature of the issues involved in the case" and the "extensive local and national media coverage this case has already generated," Judge Jason Cashon gagged many of the participants in the case — including law enforcement, attorneys and family members — from making comments to the media.

For that reason, St. John says he can't comment on whether he believes Routh can get a fair trial, though he does agree that the issue will come up in the week before the trial, when the parties are scheduled to begin the process of picking jurors. In addition, St. John seems to believe that Taya Kyle — the Chris Kyle's widow (played by Sienna Miller in the film) — might be in violation of the judge's order for an interview she gave to promote the movie on the Fox News show Hannity.

In recent weeks, Taya has given many interviews in support of American Sniper and has even addressed the situation involving Routh. For example, a Los Angeles Times story earlier this month quotes her as saying about the defendant, "To try and even find an excuse is disgusting. … I know people with PTSD, and it's very real and very hard. But it doesn't change your core character."

Read more Box Office: How 'American Sniper' Played Like a Superhero Movie

Taya couldn't be reached for comment.

While American Sniper avoids sticky subjects like the $1.8 million that Jesse Ventura won at a defamation trial last year over Kyle's book, the film's attempt to avoid controversial subjects hasn't stood in the way of generating them nonetheless. And although American Sniper might have tried to be somewhat ambiguous about the cause of Kyle's death, it hasn't stopped some people on social media from demanding vengeance. Here are some examples:

It's that kind of sentiment that no doubt makes Routh's attorneys fear he won't be able to get a fair trial. The court has scheduled an unusual "media information meeting" on Feb. 2.

comments powered by Disqus