Texas honors a warrior on Chris Kyle Day

Army veteran Alex Barragan salutes the grave of Chris Kyle, the decorated Navy SEAL sniper, at the Texas State Cemetery.
Army veteran Alex Barragan salutes the grave of Chris Kyle, the decorated Navy SEAL sniper, at the Texas State Cemetery. AP

Two years after Chris Kyle’s death, and days before the man accused of killing him goes to trial, the retired Navy SEAL depicted in the blockbuster movie American Sniper received a state day Monday in his honor.

“America needs heroes,” Gov. Greg Abbott said as he signed a proclamation declaring Feb. 2 “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas, where Kyle was raised and lived after serving in Iraq. Flags statewide were to fly at half-staff on Monday.

“As governor, I am proclaiming this to be Chris Kyle Day, but in doing so, as Chris would have it, we are also recognizing every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States Military,” Abbott said, flanked by a dozen lawmakers from both parties.

Abbott called Kyle — reputed to be the deadliest sniper in American history — “the face of a legion of warriors who have led the mightiest military in the history of the world.”

Four years after he retired from service, he and neighbor Chad Littlefield were shot and killed at a North Texas gun range. Accused in their deaths is former Marine Eddie Ray Routh, whom the two men were trying to help. Routh has been described by family as a troubled veteran who was hospitalized for mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

An Abbott spokeswoman said the success of the movie based on Kyle’s autobiography and the upcoming trial were not driving forces behind Monday’s announcement. An effort is underway to make Chris Kyle Day an annual event.

Jury selection begins Thursday in Stephenville, about 150 miles north of Austin, in the trial of Routh, now 27, who is charged with one count of capital murder and two counts of murder.

Some 800 people have been summoned for jury duty in the case, said court spokeswoman Wanda Pringle, compared with the typical jury pool of 175 in Erath County. Once seated, the jury will be under orders not to discuss the case, and Judge Jason Cashon will not permit electronic recording devices or cameras in his courtroom.

Routh’s attorney, J. Warren St. John, has said that the Warner Bros. film will be an issue in his client getting a fair trial.

Death penalty case

Finding jurors who haven’t heard about Chris Kyle could prove to be difficult, said Allen Place Jr., a criminal defense attorney and spokesman for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

“We want everything to be even-handed, and if there was any pretrial publicity that intends a different spin on anything, then we should all be upset, regardless of where it comes from,” Place said.

St. John has said that Routh will plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

As Abbott prepared to sign the proclamation, Kyle’s name and the honor came up as Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht sought support from the Senate Finance Committee for an initiative to help veterans with legal services. The initiative is in partnership with the Texas Veterans Commission.

“It’s deeply engrained in the military not to leave any soldier behind,” Hecht said. “We just want to make sure when they get back we haven’t left any of them behind either.”

Last week, Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, spoke to legislators at a private screening of American Sniper at the Texas Capitol. She praised peer counseling such as the Military Veteran Peer Network, one of several assistance programs that the Texas Veterans Commission hopes will receive more state funding this year.

Although Chris Kyle wasn’t working with the network, “he is sort of a model of that network,” said Kyle Mitchell, deputy executive director of the commission. “He was outreaching in the field on his own.”

Taya Kyle did not attend Monday’s event.

But a handful of protesters did show up outside the Capitol during the event, carrying signs that read such things as “Chris Kyle is a liar criminal” and “smash Islamophobia.”

This report includes information from the Houston Chronicle.