J. Warren St. John, the defense attorney for Eddie Ray Routh, the former marine who killed American Sniper Chris Kyle at a shooting range in 2013, recently gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter complaining that the popularity of the film American Sniper will prevent his client from getting a fair trial. According to him, the film lionizes Kyle and as a result, it will be harder to find a jury that isn’t influenced in some way by the film’s portrayal.
It’s currently unclear what St. John thinks he can get out of this. Will he be looking for a delay until the movie slides out of the public consciousness? Will he be seeking a change of venue? We should find out in early February since the judge presiding over the case has scheduled a media conference to figure this whole thing out.
These are the kinds of arguments that make people hate lawyers. And frankly, I’d forgive you if you came away from this story thinking that most of us are fabulist con artists whose only goal is to obscure the truth long enough to let our guilty and sociopathic clients go free. Normally, I get frustrated when I see defenses like this, even though I know it’s part and parcel of the profession. But in this case, St. John may actually have a point.
First off, Lawyers are required under the law to represent their clients vigorously and zealously, especially in criminal proceedings. In Massachusetts where I practice, Rule 1.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys states that we "should represent a client zealously within the bounds of the law.” The official comment to that rule states that
"A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to the lawyer, and may take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client's cause or endeavor. A lawyer should act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client's behalf."
This is designed to ensure that attorneys give their full attention and skill to a client’s needs. The legal system doesn’t work if you half-ass everything you do for your client. Of course, it can have the opposite effect, leading lawyers to engage in a host of ridiculous arguments, especially in criminal proceedings. That’s how you get the "Twinkie Defense," and "If It Doesn’t Fit, You Must Acquit."
But here’s the other thing St. John has going for him in this case. It’s called the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause, and it grants American citizens the right to be tried by a fair and impartial jury. If St. John can convince the judge that it will be nigh impossible to find a jury that hasn’t been unduly influenced by American Sniper, he should get a continuance (i.e. postpone the trial), or a venue change. He shouldn't (and won't) get a dismissal, and he'll be laughed out of court if he asks for one. Here's the bottom line: Routh will not walk without a trial. Eventually St. John will have to stand in front of a jury and defend his client. Whether he wins or loses, well that remains to be seen.