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Ventura says he will fight ‘Sniper’ case again if court orders retrial

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura speaks with reporters outside the U.S. Courthouse in St. Paul on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Marino Eccher)

By Marino Eccher

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The estate of slain Navy SEAL Chris Kyle asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to throw out a jury’s conclusion that the “American Sniper” author defamed Jesse Ventura with a passage in the bestseller.

Ventura’s lawyers argued the verdict should stand. But if it doesn’t, the former Minnesota governor said he was prepared to take it to trial again despite a hefty price tag.

“I have to,” Ventura said outside the federal courthouse in St. Paul after the hearing. “It’s my name.”

A jury last summer awarded Ventura $1.8 million, finding Kyle had fabricated a passage in the book in which he described punching out a man dubbed “Scruff Face” after the man badmouthed fallen soldiers at a SEAL wake.

In book publicity interviews, Kyle said the man was Ventura. The former Minnesota governor maintains the incident never happened and that the story ruined his reputation, particularly in the military community.

Kyle, along with a friend, was shot to death in 2013 at a Texas gun range by a former Marine. His wife, Taya Kyle, represented his estate at the defamation trial.

The estate’s attorneys argued Tuesday that the trial judge didn’t properly instruct jurors on the standard for defamation against a public figure, leading them to apply a lesser burden of proof to Ventura’s claims than they should have.

At trial, witnesses on both sides offered conflicting versions of events. A handful for Kyle’s estate said they saw or heard elements of his story unfold — some said they heard Ventura make disparaging remarks about dead SEALs and saw an altercation. Ventura’s friends said they saw nothing of the sort.

Lee Levine, an attorney for the estate, told the appeals court that two witnesses in particular — a pair of sisters who didn’t know Kyle or Ventura but corroborated parts of Kyle’s story — undercut the notion Ventura had proved convincingly that the story was false.

When the appellate court pores over the case, “it will not be able to finding clear and convincing evidence” of the story’s falsehood, Levine said.

David Olsen, Ventura’s attorney, said the jury found Ventura’s side to be credible and Kyle’s to be otherwise. He also said higher courts haven’t clearly established the higher bar of evidence for public figures.

Levine also argued the unjust enrichment award that netted Ventura the bulk of his winnings in the case — $1.3 million — was “unprecedented” and a perversion of a law that was never meant for defamation cases. Olsen said the award was appropriate.

Judge William J. Riley, chief judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, appeared most critical in questioning remarks Olsen made at trial about insurance paying for damages the jury might award.

Representatives of the Kyle estate said the comments were inappropriate and warrant a mistrial. Riley said they were “over the line.”

Olsen said they were permissible in context and that the estate didn’t object in a timely fashion.

An appellate decision could take months.

Ventura said he’s still reeling from Kyle’s story.

He attributed the loss of his “Conspiracy Theory” television show and subsequent struggle to find employment to the negative publicity from the case and said he feels like a pariah in military circles he once frequented as a member of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team (a unit that later merged with the SEALs).

He reiterated his stance that he’d move to Mexico, where he has a home, if Kyle’s estate winds up winning.

Ventura said the jury’s award was fair for a book that made tens of millions of dollars, likening himself to “the booster rocket” that vaulted the book to popularity.

He said he’s spent roughly $1 million fighting Kyle’s story but insisted, “If they order a new trial, we’ll go at it again.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

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