Professional wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura recalls how none of the pundits predicted he’d pull an upset in 1998, when he was elected governor of Minnesota.
Now he figures he’s the underdog all over again as he vows to take on the estate of war hero Chris Kyle for a second time after the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in June threw out Ventura’s $1.8 million jury award in his 2014 libel trial.
In an interview at a White Bear Lake cafe this week, Ventura declared that the legal battle to clear his name has made the past four years “hell” for him and his wife, Terry.
But, he said, he and his lawyer plan to defy the odds, seek redress from the U.S. Supreme Court — a very long shot — and go to trial a second time.
“I feel I’ll win again,” said Ventura. “Every time I’m the major underdog, guess who comes and makes me the favorite? The people. The people will come and take me from underdog status to victory.”
Minnesota’s most unorthodox governor came to the interview dressed as casually as he sometimes did when he was in office. With shoulder-length hair, the 65-year-old was wearing a pirate-adorned black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He conceded that should a second trial take place, it’s likely that both sides will be better prepared.
“Yeah,” Ventura said. “But I have something they don’t have — the truth.”
For four years Ventura has maintained that Kyle’s 2012 bestselling memoir, “American Sniper,” published by HarperCollins, contained a fabricated account of a fight in a Coronado, Calif., bar in 2006. Kyle wrote that he punched and knocked down a Vietnam veteran and celebrity named “Scruff Face,” after he made hostile remarks about Navy SEALs, President George W. Bush and U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. In interviews, Kyle identified “Scruff Face” as Ventura. Kyle was shot and killed in an unrelated incident in Texas in 2013. Ventura, who insisted the bar fight never occurred, continued his suit against Kyle’s estate overseen by Kyle’s widow, Taya, culminating in an 11-day federal trial in St. Paul where the jury, in an 8-2 vote, sided with Ventura.
Reached for comment, attorneys for Kyle’s estate referred questions to a HarperCollins publicist, who did not respond to an e-mail inquiry.
Ventura, a Naval frogman who was trained by the SEALs, contended his reputation had been ruined in the SEAL community.
In his interview on Monday, Ventura described a recent incident in a hotel lobby in Mexico.
“A guy from Texas screamed at me … about what I am doing to Chris Kyle and his family. Screamed at me in front of the whole lobby. That’s what I’ve lived with,” he said.
Ventura said the case has also been stressful for his wife, Terry, who has suffered from epileptic seizures. She said Tuesday that she had a seizure at the federal courthouse in St. Paul after she testified in the trial.
“It’s been terrible,” she said. She worries about the financial costs of spending their life savings on the lawsuit (it is approaching $1 million so far) and the loss of his TV commentary jobs, which he attributes to Kyle’s allegations of a fabricated incident.
“He is spending all this money going toward something that never happened,” she said. “It drives me crazy.”
Attorneys for Kyle’s estate suggested at trial that Ventura lost jobs because his fame has faded since he left the governorship in 2002.
Panel allegedly erred
In June, a three-judge panel of the 8th circuit overturned the jury award of $1.35 million to Ventura for “unjust enrichment,” saying it was not permitted under Minnesota law. On a 2-1 vote, the panel also reversed the $500,000 jury defamation award to Ventura and sent it back for a new trial. The panel said that U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle (no relation to Chris Kyle) incorrectly allowed Ventura’s attorney, David B. Olsen, to briefly question two representatives of HarperCollins about what they knew about defamation insurance in the book contract. The two representatives said they knew nothing.
Further, the appeals court said, Olsen improperly mentioned the insurance in his closing argument. The appeals court said juries are more likely to issue large awards if they are informed it’s covered by insurance.
In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Ventura said they will argue Taya Kyle’s attorneys should have immediately objected to Olsen’s mention of insurance in his closing argument rather than waiting until the jury was sent out to deliberate.
Judge Kyle rejected the defense argument. Ventura said the appeals court violated long-standing federal rules by deciding a question that had not been challenged until after the trial was over. Similarly, he said, the issue of unjust enrichment had not been taken up during motions at the trial and hence the appeals court should not have considered it. Last month, he noted, the 8th circuit declined to hear a case precisely on those grounds.
High court hearing slim
Ventura admits that getting the Supreme Court to take the case will be difficult.
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the Supreme Court considers less than 1 percent of the cases it is asked to review and is mainly interested in constitutional questions or disputes between circuit courts.
“So the likelihood of them granting Gov. Ventura’s petition is quite low,” he said.
Before the next trial, the presiding federal judge will order a settlement conference. Ventura said he will insist HarperCollins admit that the bar fight account was fabricated. He said he will also want his legal costs paid, and reimbursement for jobs he lost after the book was published.
Before Kyle’s death, Ventura said he told Kyle, “If you would go out and tell the truth this didn’t happen, I’ll forgive you publicly and we’ll both go on with our lives.”
“He wouldn’t do it,” Ventura said. “He didn’t have the courage.”
In a video deposition shown at the first trial, Kyle insisted the incident occurred. Daly said that the case might still be settled if HarperCollins admits to something other than the word fabrication, which would be less severe “but still satisfy the governor.”
Daly said Taya Kyle may not want to face another trial. Then again, he added, “The governor is fighting on principle, and it could be really hard to move them away from anything but a trial.”