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'American Sniper' fame could complicate Chris Kyle murder trial

The trial of the man accused of killing Chris Kyle is about to begin; how will 'American Sniper' affect it?

Court staff is preparing for the first day of jury selection here Thursday in the trial of the man accused of killing Navy SEAL and “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, a task legal experts said is complicated by Kyle’s fame.

Kyle, 38, became one of the country’s most lethal snipers during four tours of duty in Iraq, writing a book about his experiences afterward that was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Bradley Cooper that’s still in theaters.

The sniper was gunned down two years ago Monday during target practice at an outdoor range near here with friend Chad Littlefield, 35. The two had taken a troubled veteran with them who now stands accused of their double murder: Eddie Ray Routh.

Routh, 27, is being held at Erath County Jail on two counts of murder and one count of capital murder in lieu of $3-million bail.

The prosecutor has said he will not seek the death penalty.

Routh’s Fort Worth-based attorney, J. Warren St. John, has questioned whether he can get a fair trial here given the publicity surrounding Kyle, and filed requests for a change of venue that the judge has so far rejected. St. John did not return calls this week. (The judge issued a gag order in the case two years ago barring attorneys and family members from discussing it.)

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, said the decision not to change venue was “problematic.”

“This is always an issue, but you can multiply that by a thousand with Chris Kyle,” she said, noting that with other celebrity trials, such as the doctor accused of killing Michael Jackson, “there was not an Oscar-nominated movie about him involving one of the most covered stars in Hollywood, Bradley Cooper, and all these spinoffs. It has inspired almost an industry around this talent, snipers.”

She added that, in Texas, “the closer you get to the actual locale, the more raw the emotions are and the more personalized.”

Erath County is largely rural, with a population of about 40,000, many of whom have followed news of the case. But it was not home to the victims, and few here knew them well. Kyle and Littlefield lived with their families in the Dallas bedroom community of Midlothian, 80 miles to the northeast. Routh is also from the Dallas area.

As of Wednesday, 800 jurors had been summoned from a pool of 30,000 in Erath County. On Thursday and Friday, they will be questioned in smaller groups by the judge. On Monday, attorneys will question them, trying to sift out those with biases to further narrow the pool in a process called voir dire.

Some legal experts said the process can still ensure that Routh gets a fair trial.

“The law doesn’t require that the juror have no knowledge of the people involved, just that the juror can set aside preconceived notions and judge the case based on the facts and the law. That’s what the voir dire process is set up for — so that lawyers and the judge can probe the jurors’ ability to do that,” said Geoffrey Corn, a retired lieutenant colonel and law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

“The real challenge,” Corn said, “is trying to determine whether a juror is really being forthcoming. One of the problems in a case like this is you have to worry that jurors want to be on the case because it’s so sensational.”

But Corn cautioned that, “Not everybody in Texas is cut from the same mold” and said moving the case to another county would be a mistake.

“It’s supposed to reflect a sense of justice in the place a crime occurred,” he said of the trial, and changing the venue “disconnects justice from the society that’s impacted by crime.”

Corn said that in addition to questioning jurors about whether they saw “American Sniper” or read the book, the defense lawyer and prosecutors will likely ask potential jurors their opinion of the insanity defense, which Routh’s attorney filed motions indicating he intends to pursue.

Opening statements are scheduled to start next Wednesday and the trial is expected to last two weeks, District Court Clerk Wanda Pringle said.

The jury will not be sequestered, despite safety concerns after a bomb threat was called in to the local newspaper, the Empire-Tribune, on Jan. 26.

Local law enforcement responded with stepped-up security surrounding the courthouse that will include added metal detectors, juror security details and a two-block perimeter closed to traffic as of Saturday, with added law enforcement from state, county and local agencies, Pringle said.

“I don’t see any problems with the safety of anybody involved in the trial,” said Erath County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jason Upshaw. “I feel pretty confident it’s extremely safe.”

Upshaw was among the first responders who rushed to the shooting range that day. 

Court staff set aside 21 of 113 seats in the courtroom gallery for relatives of the victims and the accused, although they said it was unclear who will attend. Kyle and his wife, Taya, had two children; Littlefield was married with a daughter.

An attorney for Taya Kyle said Thursday that she and her relatives would probably attend the trial.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:38 p.m.: Updated to add that the chief deputy sheriff was among the first responders at the shooting range.

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