Lawyers spar over the making and marketing of 'American Sniper' in Jesse Ventura defamation trial

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 2:44 PM

Lawyers tangled over whether the account in “American Sniper” involving the former governor was used to boost sales of the book.

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Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura

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Lawyers in the Jesse Ventura defamation trial tangled in federal court Thursday over the making and marketing of an international bestseller that the former governor claims has ruined his reputation.

The co-author, publicist and executive editor of the New York publisher of “American Sniper” all defended the accuracy of the memoir and claimed the three-page sub-chapter on an alleged bar fight involving Ventura that sparked his lawsuit had little effect on the book’s spectacular sale of 1.5 million copies.

But Ventura’s lawyers offered evidence on the trial’s eighth day that while the book was being written, the late Chris Kyle, the SEAL veteran, and a top editor at HarperCollins, the book’s publisher, expressed concern that the account of the fight could provoke a libel suit.

“Great story,” Peter Hubbard, the executive editor, typed in a note in the margin of a manuscript draft of the book, shown on a large courtroom screen to the 10-member jury. “If it was witnessed by fellow SEALs, thus corroboration against libel claim. Can we mention who it was? Jesse Ventura, I take it.”

In the early drafts, Jim DeFelice, the co-author who wrote the book based on interviews with Kyle and others, used Ventura’s name and titled the sub-chapter “Punching out Ventura.” But the ex-governor’s name was excised when the book was published in January 2012, with Ventura referred to only as “Scruff Face,” whom Kyle described as a celebrity former SEAL.

Defense attorneys earlier introduced testimony during the trial that Kyle did not want to embarrass fellow SEALs in the book, including Ventura, and decided not to identify him by name.

‘Warned of lawsuit’

On Thursday, however, Ventura’s attorneys showed a note Kyle had typed into the Ventura sub-chapter of a draft that read, “Don’t want to use full name for description. Was warned of lawsuit.”

The suit revolves around an alleged confrontation on Oct. 12, 2006, at McP’s Irish Pub, a popular SEALs bar in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego. Ventura was there attending a reunion at the same time a wake was in progress for the family and friends of Michael Monsoor, a SEAL who was killed in Iraq two weeks earlier.

In the book, Kyle wrote that he punched and knocked down Ventura after he continued to make disparaging remarks about President George W. Bush and the Iraq war and said the SEALs “deserved to lose a few.”

Ventura has testified that he is devoted to the SEALs, blames the Iraq war on politicians, not those sent to fight there, and would never suggest that a SEAL or other soldiers deserved to die. He also said the physical altercation did not occur.

Ventura has produced three witnesses to support his account, while attorneys for Kyle’s estate have introduced about 10 witnesses who say they saw elements of the confrontation or heard about it later that night or the next day.

Kyle was shot and killed at a firing range in 2013 by a veteran he was mentoring, and Ventura continued the lawsuit against his widow, Taya Kyle, who now manages her husband’s estate.

Much of Thursday’s testimony was about whether the news early in January 2012 that “Scruff Face” was Ventura led to a big increase in book sales and whether HarperCollins used the bar fight to hype publicity about the book.

Hubbard said the news reports and interviews Kyle gave about the fight had a negligible effect on sales and may have actually hurt them, since readers would be less inclined to buy a book if its accuracy were challenged.

Hubbard and Sharyn Rosenblum, a HarperCollins publicist, pointed to pre-publication sales of more than 3,000 to show that “American Sniper” was already in demand. Rosenblum said an article in the New York Post and a recommendation to buy the book by conservative TV host Bill O’Reilly on his Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” were key to the book’s quick jump to the top of the nation’s bestseller lists.

But Ventura attorney David Olsen contended that sales surged after Kyle gave a national radio interview on Sirius XM Radio in which, in response to a caller, he said he punched Ventura, and after O’Reilly began his interview with Kyle talking about him punching Ventura.

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