Jesse Ventura trial: Who's telling the truth? Jury gets case
By Marino Eccher | Pioneer Press | Published: July 23, 2014
It would take 11 witnesses and a decorated Navy SEAL lying under oath for Jesse Ventura's defamation claims against Chris Kyle to hold up, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
Ventura's lawyers argued that the accounts of those witnesses were so full of holes and inconsistencies that it's not hard to see how they got it wrong. Deciding the case in the former Minnesota governor's favor, they said, would help make things right.
The two sides made their closing arguments Tuesday in federal court in St. Paul before handing off the two-week-long trial to a jury of six men and four women.
Jurors got the case about noon and broke for the day just before 4:30 p.m. without reaching a verdict. They'll resume deliberations Wednesday morning.
The verdict must be unanimous.
At issue is whether Kyle, a SEAL sniper-turned-author, fabricated a story that he punched out Ventura at a Coronado, Calif., bar in 2006.
Kyle wrote in his 2012 bestseller "American Sniper" that he slugged a celebrity he dubbed "Scruff Face" at the bar after the man badmouthed fallen soldiers at a war hero's wake.
Ventura, who was at the bar for a reunion of his own Navy class, said that never happened. He sued Kyle after he was outed as "Scruff Face" in promotional interviews for the book and continued the lawsuit against Kyle's estate after Kyle was shot to death at a Texas gun range last year.
Jurors were instructed to focus their deliberations on whether Ventura made offensive statements -- that he hated America, that SEALs were killing innocent people in Iraq and that they deserved to lose men at war.
For Ventura to win, the jury must find three things: that the story was defamatory, that it was false and that Kyle knew it was false or had serious doubts about its truth.
The standard for the first two elements is what's known as "greater weight of the evidence" (sometinmes called the "preponderance of the evidence") -- essentially, which side jurors found more convincing. The third element requires "clear and convincing evidence," a higher bar that requires jurors to firmly believe it to be true.
Both standards are lower than "beyond a reasonable doubt," required for criminal convictions.
Over the course of the trial, defense attorneys presented testimony from people, including current and former SEALs, who were at the bar that night and said they saw or heard elements of Kyle's story take place. Some said they heard Ventura make offensive remarks, such as saying the SEALs "deserve to lose a few" men in the Iraq war. Others said they saw Kyle hit him, or saw Ventura on the ground or getting up.
The details of their accounts didn't always match, but "they all agree that something happened," said John Borger, an attorney for the Kyle estate.
"If you believe that something happened that night," Borger said, "then Jesse Ventura has a huge problem."
The discrepancies in witness accounts were normal for eyewitness testimony of a night eight years in the past, he said. He argued they didn't change the gist of the story -- and that it actually would have been more suspicious if everyone's stories matched up perfectly.
He said Ventura's career and penchant for controversial statements make it easy to see how the former professional wrestler and entertainment personality could have stepped over the line and said the wrong things in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even if Kyle's story was wrong, Borger said, there still isn't enough evidence to show the author lied on purpose. And he said there certainly isn't enough evidence to show Ventura was harmed by the story.
Pressing on with the lawsuit after Kyle's death was far more damaging to Ventura than anything Kyle wrote or said, Borger argued.
The case, he said, "is about the measure of two very different men" -- a straightforward combat veteran determined to help others and a fading celebrity concerned only with attention and with himself.
David Olsen, one of Ventura's attorneys, said Ventura had been left with no choice but to continue the lawsuit or let Kyle's lies about him stand.
He said the defense's witnesses didn't offer nearly the degree of ironclad corroboration Kyle suggested they would in his deposition in the case.
Jurors don't need to believe they all were lying, he said, to think they were wrong.
With the story circulating and memories hazy -- and sometimes clouded by alcohol -- "at some point it becomes difficult for them to distinguish between what actually happened and what they would like to believe," Olsen said.
If Ventura had been hit in the face by a trained SEAL in peak physical condition, he would have bruised, Olsen said. Photos from the next few days didn't seem to show that.
"Everyone in this room knows that didn't happen," Olsen said of the punch. And if Kyle lied about the punch, he asked, "what else did he lie about?"
He showed a map of the bar with markers for where and when different witnesses said they saw parts of the fight unfold. Eventually he put all of the markers on the map at the same time, creating a scattershot scene that he said reflected the gulfs among different accounts.
"That's what happens when you make stories up," he said. He said Kyle's own testimony that he lied to avoid getting in trouble for a bar fight while he was on active duty showed that soldiers are willing to lie to back each other up.
Olsen suggested the most offensive remarks Ventura is said to have made -- that SEALs deserved to lose men in the war -- was a misinterpretation of Ventura's comments about military tactics. Ventura in fact said that if SEALs were deployed for daytime operations with other units, they were going to lose men, Olsen said.
Olsen said sales of "American Sniper" took off after Kyle identified Ventura as the subject of the bar fight story. The story killed job offers and shredded the former Underwater Demolition Team member's standing in the military community, Olsen said.
"He can't get that back now," he said.
The underwater team later merged with the SEALs, and Ventura was a fixture at SEAL reunions -- until Kyle's story was published, Ventura said.
Olsen said an award as high as $15 million would be "a reasonable amount" given the way Ventura had been damaged. He also mentioned $10 million and $5 million as possible awards.
Whatever amount the jury might decide on, "your verdict will tell the world that Chris Kyle's story is a lie," Olsen said.