Booking photo Eddie Ray Routh
By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - The first steps in jury selection began on Thursday in a Texas court for the trial of the man charged with murdering Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL whose best-selling autobiography was turned into the hit movie "American Sniper."
About 800 residents of largely rural Erath County have been called as potential jurors in the trial of Eddie Ray Routh, 27, charged with murdering Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a shooting range about 70 miles (112 km) southwest of Fort Worth on Feb. 2, 2013.
Potential jurors will fill out questionnaires this week. Jury selection starts on Monday and opening arguments are planned for Feb. 11.
Judge Jason Cashon told jurors they could still serve even if they saw the movie or read Kyle's book, the Dallas Morning News reported.
"It's OK if you’ve seen the movie," Cashon told potential jurors, the paper said.
Kyle and Littlefield took Routh, a troubled Iraq War veteran, to the shooting range to help him through psychological problems, which Routh's family said were brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Routh's relatives said he was hospitalized at a mental institution shortly before the shootings.
Routh is accused of stealing Kyle's truck after the killings and driving it to the home of Routh's sister, who said he confessed to the crimes. Routh was arrested that day and has been jailed in Erath County on $3 million bond.
His attorney, Warren St. John, said he will try to show that Routh was insane at the time of the incident, and therefore not guilty of murder.
Defense attorneys were rebuffed in their request for a change of venue. Cashon also denied a request to postpone the trial.
"American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, has grossed more than $250 million since opening in mid-January and has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture.
Kyle's 160 kills in Iraq are considered the highest count in U.S. military history.
Some critics contend the film glorifies war and sanitizes Kyle, who called Muslims "savages" in his memoir. Some have also taken issue with Eastwood's interpretation of the history leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said the movie has led to "violent threats" against its members, and asked Cooper and Eastwood to denounce such hateful language.
Erath County officials said heightened security measures will be in place during jury selection and the trial.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Eric Walsh)