In a battle of visual presentations, the lead attorneys on both sides of the Jesse Ventura defamation case sought to discredit each other’s key witnesses before the case went to the jury for several hours Tuesday.
The 10-member jury will return Wednesday morning to try to determine if the former Minnesota governor was defamed by the late Chris Kyle, whose bestselling memoir “American Sniper” contains a description of a bar fight involving Ventura. Ventura’s lawsuit claims the incident never happened.
Before a packed courtroom in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Kyle’s lawyer, John Borger, displayed a checklist of 11 witnesses on a large courtroom screen. All of them, he said, saw or heard “something” about disparaging remarks that Ventura made about U.S. Navy SEALs and the fight described in the section of the book where Kyle wrote that he punched Ventura.
“To conclude Kyle knew he was lying means that you could have to find that he not only testified falsely in his deposition, but all 11 other witnesses also testified falsely under oath,” Borger said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Ventura’s lawyer, David B. Olsen, countered with a big-screen visual of an aerial photograph of McP’s Irish pub in Coronado, Calif., where the punch allegedly occurred in 2006, showing that witnesses claimed they saw the fight at a half-dozen different locations — on the bar’s patio, in the parking lot and on surrounding sidewalks.
“This looks like a game-show board,” Olsen said. “That’s what happens when stories get made up.”
Defamation comes first
In his instructions, U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle told jurors that they first must conclude if Ventura was defamed. If not, the trial is over.
If they decide that defamation occurred and that Ventura’s reputation was harmed, they must determine how large an award the former governor should receive, said the judge, who is no relation to Chris Kyle.
Chris Kyle, an ex-Navy SEAL, died in 2013, and Ventura continued the suit against his estate and widow, Taya Kyle.
Olsen told jurors it is up to them to come up with a dollar amount, but he mentioned these amounts in descending order: $15 million, $10 million or $5 million. It was the first time that Ventura’s team laid out how much it is seeking.
To reach a verdict, the six men and four women must reach a unanimous decision.
Judge Kyle said that if jurors had questions, they should write him a note, “and make sure it’s good penmanship.” A stickler, he gave each attorney exactly one hour for his closing argument and cut off Borger in mid-sentence as he was completing his presentation.
‘Where are those guys?’
Based on both the attorneys’ closing arguments and the judge’s instructions, the jurors will be asked to focus on three specific statements made in the bar by an unidentified “celebrity” whom Chris Kyle called “Scruff Face” in the book. Kyle later named Ventura in media interviews as the ex-SEAL who said that he “hates America,” that the Navy SEALs were “killing men, women and children and murdering” and that he believed the SEALs “deserve to lose a few.”
Olsen began his closing argument by showing part of a video deposition that Chris Kyle gave in 2012, the year before he was shot to death by a veteran he was mentoring. The video shows Kyle saying that when he punched Ventura, four or five men were standing around them in a half-circle.
“Where are those four or five guys?” Olsen asked. “Not one of them were in this court.”
He also said that while witnesses for Kyle said Ventura’s comments offended the family of a SEAL being honored at a wake at the bar, not a single member of the family testified.
Olsen said such comments were “completely out of character for Jesse Ventura,” given how proud he is of his family’s World War II service and his commitment to the SEALs.
Witnesses discussed incident
Borger told jurors that they should reject Ventura’s claims that he was defamed.
The gist of Kyle’s book and interviews is true, he said.
Borger displayed a checklist of what each of the 11 witnesses for his side said.
According to the chart, eight heard insensitive remarks from Ventura, four saw an encounter between Kyle and Ventura, three heard the “deserve to lose a few” quote, three saw Ventura get punched and six saw Ventura on the ground or getting up.
The chart claims nine witnesses “heard about/discussed event” within moments or days of the incident.
Borger said that in Ventura’s mind, Kyle’s book was all about him, but it was actually about Kyle’s experiences and the effect that military service had on service people’s families.
“Ventura might not know that, because he ‘ain’t got time to read’ the entire book, but you can,” Borger said, referring to Ventura’s 1999 memoir, “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed.”
Jurors were each supplied a copy of Kyle’s book.
Olsen asked jurors to look closely at a photo of Ventura showed by Borger and taken at a SEAL picnic days after the alleged incident. Borger had said shadows on Ventura’s face might obscure a bruise from the punch he received.
“Mr. Borger suggests pictures lie,” Olsen said. “Chris Kyle did not hit Jesse Ventura in the face and we know it.”
The two sides also disputed what the book did to Ventura’s reputation and career. Borger said Ventura’s income had sharply declined over the past decade because “his star had faded,” while Olsen said the book had severely damaged his reputation with the public and with the SEAL community, with whom he associated.
After closing arguments, Borger filed a motion for a mistrial, saying Olsen had improperly cited the defamation insurance policy of HarperCollins, the book’s publisher. Judge Kyle denied the motion.
Earlier in the trial, Borger had argued that mentioning the insurance policy would encourage jurors to award Ventura more money if they knew it was not coming from Kyle’s widow.
Ventura sat with his three attorneys through the proceedings, rolling a pen in his hand, occasionally rocking back and forth in his chair.