Many of the jurors in the Jesse Ventura defamation case had not made up their minds when they entered the jury room. But within days they had formed two blocs, and by the fifth day they were unmovable, one juror told the Star Tribune.
“When we sent [the judge] the first note saying we were deadlocked, we weren’t happy with the option,” the juror said. “At that point no one was going to change their opinion.”
In the end, most did not believe the story that Ventura had been punched out in a Coronado, Calif., bar after making disparaging remarks about the United States and Navy SEALs, said the juror, who voted with the majority.
The juror, who asked not to be identified, recounted the events that led to the 8-2 vote to award $1.8 million to the former Minnesota governor. The decision confounded some legal observers who predicted that the former governor would most likely fail to convince a jury, because of high standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court in defamation cases.
Ironically, some of the most powerful evidence that the attorneys for author Chris Kyle’s estate presented may have backfired.
The three-week trial revolved around three pages in the bestseller, “American Sniper,” in which the author, the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, claimed he decked a man, later identified as Ventura, in a bar after he some incendiary remarks at a wake for a SEAL killed in Iraq.
After being sent off to deliberate the afternoon of July 22, jurors studied U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle’s instructions and reviewed the testimony, depositions and other documents.
“It took me a couple of days to digest,” the juror said in an interview on Friday. “I remember a lot of people not leaning either way, going through the notes. … A lot were undecided.”
As divisions developed, the juror offered some insights into how the majority of jurors evaluated the evidence.
“There were so many different accounts [of where the alleged fight occurred] when alcohol was involved,” said the juror, who was interviewed on the condition that the juror's name not be published. “The testimony was all over the place.”
While uncomfortable summarizing the views of the two holdouts, the juror said the pair felt that Kyle did not know he was defaming Ventura in the sub-chapter about the fight. “They believed the story [in the book],” the juror said, “given Jesse’s background and Kyle’s. It was everything, from [Ventura’s] conspiracy [theories] to his [Ventura’s] books, to his character.”
The juror said that one of the most persuasive arguments in Ventura’s favor was a visual presentation, a checklist, offered by the Kyle defense — showing what its 11 witnesses had seen or heard on Oct. 12, 2006, at McP’s Irish Pub.
The purpose of the graphic was to show that all of their witnesses had seen or heard something that night, thus solidifying the claim that Kyle’s account was truthful.
It had the opposite affect on the juror. “It was confusing that no one could see all the events,” the juror said. “It was hard to see that no one saw everything.” Someone saw him punched, some saw him on the ground, but didn’t see him punched, and others saw him getting up he said.
“I don’t believe Chris Kyle was 100 percent lying,” said the juror. But the juror said Kyle “may have had to live up to the expectations of his buddies” in relaying the story of the fight.”
That is why, the juror thinks, Kyle titled the sub chapter “Punching out Scruff Face” and did not use Ventura’s name in the book, preferring to keep it “under wraps.”
“If it was true, I thought he would have used his name,” the juror said. Kyle later said in media interviews that Scruff Face was Ventura.
Asked why the juror felt Ventura’s reputation had been harmed, the juror said, “Anything negative in print that affects someone as high profile as Mr. Ventura, would hurt his reputation.”
The juror pointed to the statements of individual defense witnesses who claimed they saw or heard about the fight or Ventura’s alleged disparaging remarks about SEALs. In questions elicited by the defense, the SEAL witnesses said that while they once respected Ventura, they now held a very negative opinion of him.
The juror said that was strong evidence that the story Kyle told had damaged Ventura’s reputation.
The juror described watching the reactions of Ventura and Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle, as they sat at the tables with their respective lawyers during the trial.
“He was always sitting back in the chair, and looked around a lot more,” the juror said. “He seemed more confident. I think Taya was more humanized. She had a lot more to lose. She had a lot on her mind. She was stressed out.”
Jurors had to decide the validity of the account, including the comments attributed to Ventura, that the United States was “killing men, women and children and murdering” in Iraq, that he “hates America” and that SEALS “deserve to lose a few.”
While the former governor has made “outrageous” statements in the past, the juror could not believe the former governor would talk like that “at a wake for a fallen Navy SEAL.” Said the juror, “It might have been something along those lines or misinterpreted. It was hard for me to believe that you ‘deserve to lose a few’ is a direct quote.”
The juror also found it compelling that the photos of Ventura taken in the days after the alleged barroom incident showed no bruises.
Kyle, the juror pointed out, was over 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds and was in excellent condition, and the idea that he could punch Ventura and not leave a facial mark was difficult to grasp.
Of the attorneys in the case, the juror was particularly impressed by David B. Olsen, Ventura’s lead attorney. “Mr. Olsen for the plaintiffs was incredibly thorough,” the juror said. “Especially when he interviewed the publishers.”
Both the chief publicist and top editor at HarperCollins took the stand, and the juror said it was “a turkey shoot” where Olsen was able to show through e-mails that the publisher had promoted the alleged fight to sell the book.
Discussions were calm
On Monday, jurors first said they were deadlocked. Judge Kyle asked them to give it “one more shot.”
But despite more discussion, including writing key evidence and timelines on a flip chart, neither side budged.
“We went over everything,” the juror recalled. “It was probably good. Everyone confirmed what they believed.” Despite the sharp divisions, the juror said, there was no hostility.
“Everyone was friendly,” said the juror. “We respected their point of view … They understood our side. They understood ours. There was mutual respect. At the end of the day, we didn’t want there to be a hung jury, but didn’t want people to change their beliefs or side.”
The 10-person panel figured it would be better to let a second trial decide it, the juror said.
Judge Kyle consulted with the attorneys, and asked jurors if they could reach a verdict on a 9 to 1 vote. The jurors sent a note back saying no.
The jurors wondered among themselves if the judge would keep coming back, asking if there was an 8-2 split, 7-3 or 6-4, the juror said.
Kyle consulted with the lawyers again, and then asked the jurors if they could resolve it on an 8-2 vote.
“We had to make sure the eight of us were still ‘yes,’ ”said the juror. They were, said the juror, so “we moved on to damages.”
The discussion over damages took less than two hours.
“I think we figured out the total amount we wanted to give him,” which was $1.8 million, then broke out how much should be awarded for defamation, which they decided would be $500,000, and unjust enrichment, $1.3 million.
The juror was aware of the considerable publicity surrounding the trial, and the large number of reporters in the gallery, but did not read any coverage during the trial.
Five days later, the juror still had not gone back to read it.
How did the juror feel, now that a few days had elapsed?
“I think we made the best decision,” the juror said. “We thought it was fair.”