Defying predictions of a slew of legal observers, Jesse Ventura won his defamation suit in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Tuesday, but in his first U.S. interview afterward, he said he had “mixed emotions” about his victory.
“I am overjoyed that my reputation was restored which is what this whole lawsuit is all about,” the former Minnesota governor told the Star Tribune in a face-to-face interview in downtown Minneapolis.
“But the emotion is [about] what’s been taken from me. I can’t go to UDT [Underwater Demolition Team]-SEAL reunions anymore because that was the place I always felt safe, and who will be next to throw me under the bus? I’d have to spend my time looking over my shoulder.”
Ventura, who won a stunning 8-2 verdict from a jury in federal court in St. Paul, had frequently attended the reunions for decades and testified he considered them his brothers.
But since the late Chris Kyle’s bestselling book “American Sniper” was published in 2012, he has become persona non grata for Navy SEALs, according to his own testimony.
After six days of deliberations by a deadlocked jury, U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, with permission of lawyers from both sides, allowed the jurors to return a split verdict.
Ventura served as governor of Minnesota for one four-year term when he was elected as an independent in a three-way race in 1998, surprising pollsters and pundits.
But many legal experts thought he was over his head when he resisted attempts to settle his defamation suit, which he filed in 2012. The standards for winning a defamation suit are high, and he was considered an underdog.
“He shocked the world in 1998, and he’s shocked the world in 2014,” said Joseph Daly, a professor emeritus at Hamline University law school. “Jesse, basically is a winner.”
The jury awarded a total of $1.845 million against the estate of Chris Kyle: $500,000 in defamation damages and $1.345 million for “unjust enrichment”— or to be specific, $1,345,477.25.
“I was nervous when the jury stayed out,” Ventura. said He said he was “very worried” because he could not understand how anyone could believe he had been punched in the head by Chris Kyle, as Kyle claimed in the book and media interviews.
For one thing, Ventura said, photos showed he had no black eye or bruises, when he had a history of profuse bleeding because he takes a blood thinner.
He also couldn’t believe anyone could think that Kyle could knock him down.
“I am 6 feet 4, I weighed 255 pounds and I’ve wrestled Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and this guy is going to knock me down with one punch and [leave] no mark on me whatsoever?”
While vindicated, Ventura said, he would have “permanently moved to Mexico” if he lost “because I would have nothing here to live for. If you can’t win in court with the truth, there’s nothing left.” Ventura and his wife, Terry, live about five months of the year in the state of Baja California, Mexico, mostly in the winter.
Judge suggested solution
It was Judge Kyle, who is no relation to the defendant, who proposed to the attorneys the idea of accepting a verdict that was less than unanimous.
Not knowing the divisions inside the jury, David Olsen, Ventura’s attorney, told reporters after the verdict that his legal team was prepared to accept a margin as small as 6 to 4, while attorneys for the Kyle estate opted for 8 to 2.
That was the margin both sides agreed to and shortly after 1:15 p.m., the jury reassembled in the seventh-floor courtroom in downtown St. Paul, and the judge announced the verdict.
Five men and three women voted for Ventura, while one man and one woman, who appeared to be the forewoman, voted that Ventura had not been defamed. Jurors left through a back exit and made no public statements.
Asked if agreeing to a split verdict was a mistake, John Borger, attorney for the Kyle estate, told reporters, “That was a strategic call that seemed appropriate at the time.”
Neither Ventura or Taya Kyle, who was the executor of her late husband’s estate, was in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Taya Kyle left the state last week to be with her children.
Borger said that he had called Taya Kyle after the verdict, “She was very surprised and very upset,” he said.
Ventura said he was out golfing at the time of the verdict. Judge Kyle had said at the outset of deliberations that whenever he learned of a verdict, he would convene his courtroom 10 minutes later. It kept attorneys and reporters close by. Ventura evidently decided he did not want to be so tethered for so long.
In his memoir, Chris Kyle claimed in 2006 he punched “Scruff Face” in McP’s Irish Pub, a Coronado, Calif., bar where a wake for a Navy SEAL was in progress. He wrote that Scruff Face said he hated America, thought the United States was murdering women and children in Iraq, and that the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” in the war. In subsequent interviews on radio and television, Kyle identified Scruff Face as Ventura.
Ventura on the stand
Ventura took the stand to say the account was fabricated, and the jury majority appears to have agreed, accepting the former governor’s statement that he was not punched and did not make the statements. To prove his loyalty to the SEALs, he hauled what he said were more than 100 SEAL T-shirts that he owns into the courtroom and offered to open his dress shirt on the stand so jurors could see a SEAL tattoo on his chest. The judge told him not to show it.
After the session, he unbuttoned the shirt and showed the tattoo to reporters.
Kyle was killed in an unrelated incident in 2013, when he was shot by a veteran he was mentoring, but he argued his case through a video deposition taken in 2012 and shown to the jury. The estate’s attorneys put 11 witnesses on the stand to contend they had seen or heard some of the confrontation between Ventura and Kyle.
But Ventura attorneys Olsen and Court Anderson were able to underscore that all of the witnesses had been drinking — with some quite drunk — and gave conflicting accounts as to when Ventura made the remarks and where the fight occurred, in the parking lot, on the patio or on at least two different sidewalks.
Olsen suggested in closing arguments that the witnesses had heard about the fight as rumor, then talked about among themselves, so eventually a myth became a fact over the eight years since the incident.
Nonetheless, the estate’s attorneys still thought they had proved their case at trial.
Borger told reporters: “While we are obviously disappointed with the jury’s verdict in this case, and we do appreciate the time and attention the jurors made to the issues here, we found the testimony by the 11 witnesses to the events at McP’s to be compelling and consistent with Chris Kyle’s account.”
He said that in coming weeks, he and his legal team will decide whether to appeal the verdict.
The jurors deliberated for six days in the case, which began July 8.
On Monday they sent Judge Kyle a note that they could not reach a unanimous decision. The judge told them to “give it one more shot.”
The judge said federal rules require a unanimous verdict but allow for a split verdict if both sides agree.
Award less than asked for
The $500,000 awarded Ventura for defamation will be paid by the insurance from book publisher HarperCollins, but the $1.3 million unjust enrichment award will presumably come from the money earned from the book, which has sold 1.5 million copies, and from a film based on it that is now in production and directed by Clint Eastwood.
Jim DeFelice, who is listed as a co-author of “American Sniper” with Kyle but who testified he wrote the book based on interviews with Kyle plus research, said he stood by what he wrote.
“I personally talked to four people who were there [at the bar],” he said, “as well as two people who’d spoken to others. I’ll continue to believe in Chris.”
University of Minnesota journalism Prof. Jane Kirtley said the most interesting aspect of the jury decision was the unusually high dollar amount for unjust enrichment — down to the quarter. “They were apparently troubled by what they thought was the exploitation of Ventura,” she said.
Asked what he planned to do with the money, Ventura said a lot would go to the lawyers. He declined to say what the legal bill is for the case.
He said he was paying them hourly and not on contingency. “If I had lost, it would have been devastating financially for me,” he said.
Ventura gave his first interview after the verdict to Russian television, because he said his son, Tyrel, who is a producer for the Russian network, asked him to do it. “Blood is thicker than water,” Ventura said.
Star Tribune photo editor Tom Wallace contributed to this report.
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