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Ventura’s alleged words, not the punch, damaged his reputation, his lawyers say

By Marino Eccher

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- A fist to Jesse Ventura’s face isn’t nearly as important to jurors as a proverbial foot in his mouth, attorneys for Chris Kyle’s estate said Friday.

The former Minnesota governor’s defamation trial against the late Navy SEAL-turned-author is expected to conclude next week. Both sides rested their cases Friday, and the jury will get the case Tuesday after closing arguments.

Kyle, a decorated SEAL sniper, claimed in his 2012 best seller “American Sniper” that he punched out a celebrity dubbed “Scruff Face” in a Coronado, Calif., bar in 2006 at a war hero’s wake after the man said the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” men in Iraq.

Ventura, whom Kyle identified as Scruff Face in promotional interviews for the book, says that never happened. He sued Kyle, then continued the lawsuit against Kyle’s estate after Kyle was shot to death in 2013 at a Texas gun range.

Attorneys for Kyle’s estate want the jury’s verdict forms to focus exclusively on offensive statements Ventura is said to have made that night — specifically the “deserve to lose a few” remark.

They argue those comments are the heart of the case and the basis for Ventura’s claim that Kyle damaged his reputation. Ventura himself, they said, has admitted the stigma of the alleged comments far outweighed the punch itself.

Focusing on that section will simplify the issue for jurors, they said, and steer them away from picking at nonessential elements of Kyle’s story — for instance, the claim that “tables flew” during the bar fight.

Ventura’s attorneys said in court Friday it’s more appropriate for jurors to consider whether the entire story is false and defamatory.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, no relation to Chris Kyle, hasn’t yet ruled on the issue, but he said Friday he’s inclined to have the jury weigh the story as a whole.

Defense attorneys also filed a motion seeking to have the case thrown out for lack of evidence — a routine maneuver, according to legal experts.

In nine days of testimony in federal court in St. Paul, witnesses for both sides have given conflicting accounts. Ventura’s friends from the night in question say they never saw or heard the alleged fight and can’t imagine him saying SEALs “deserve to lose a few” in the Iraq war, as Kyle claimed.

Kyle’s fellow SEALs and others who were at the wake said they saw Ventura getting hit or getting off the ground, or heard him make those remarks.

The motion from the Kyle estate, filed late Thursday, claims the evidence at trial has been so scant the judge should throw the case out. That’s standard procedure, said University of Minnesota law professor William McGeveran — and not something that’s likely to derail the trial.

“It would be tough for a judge to take a question that’s so factually murky and say the jury couldn’t possibly come out either way,” McGeveran said.

Ventura’s attorneys were to respond to the motion later Friday or Monday.

For Ventura to win, jurors must find that Kyle’s story was false and that Kyle acted with what’s known as “actual malice” in telling it — he either knew it wasn’t true or acted with reckless disregard for the facts.

They must also find Ventura was damaged by the story.

The former professional wrestler and entertainment personality claims job offers dried up after the story came out. The Kyle estate says Ventura’s history of inflammatory statements — and insistence on continuing the lawsuit against a military widow — dwarf any effect on his reputation Kyle’s book might have.

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