Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, right, is seen in the courthouse during the first day of jury selection in his defamation lawsuit against the Chris Kyle estate, claiming that the 'Amerian Sniper' author's account of a bar fight in a book he wrote was false. (Elizabeth Flores / AP via The Star Tribune)
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ST. PAUL, MINN. — Jesse Ventura brought his defamation lawsuit before home-state jurors Tuesday in a bid to punish the estate of late “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, who bragged in an autobiography that he decked the former Minnesota governor during a barroom scrap almost a decade ago.
In opening statements in federal court, Ventura attorney David Bradley Olsen said the punch never happened and that Ventura never made disparaging comments about servicemen, as Kyle claimed.
“Jesse Ventura will testify there was no incident, there was no altercation and that Kyle made the whole story up,” Olsen said.
Kyle estate attorney John Borger countered that the jury would get the real story from Kyle via testimony videotaped before his death.
“You will hear Chris Kyle testify he was absolutely sure that what he wrote about Jesse Ventura’s behavior was true,” Borger said. Both sides said they would produce witnesses to back their version of events.
Ventura, a former Navy SEAL and wrestler who was Minnesota governor from 1999-2003, alleges Kyle defamed him in his best-selling book. Ventura pursued the claim even after Kyle was killed last year at a Texas gun range, saying it was important to clear his name.
In a three-page subchapter of his book, Kyle — also a former SEAL and regarded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history — describes a 2006 bar fight in Coronado, California, in which he said he punched a man knocking him to the ground. Kyle identified the man in the autobiography only as “Scruff Face” but whom he later said was Ventura. Kyle claimed Ventura was speaking loudly against President George W. Bush, the Iraq War and Navy SEAL tactics. Kyle claimed Ventura said the SEALS “deserve to lose a few.”
Kyle has said he took offense because he was at the bar for the wake of a fallen SEAL. Ventura was there with friends because he planned to attend a SEAL graduation ceremony the next day. Olson told the jury they’ll hear testimony that Ventura wasn’t drunk because he doesn’t drink alcohol, but that many people in Kyle’s group were drinking very heavily, raising questions about the reliability of their testimony.
The first witness was Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, who testified that he left Ventura’s name out of his book because the point wasn’t to call anyone out. She acknowledged she’d heard some concerns as he was writing the book that naming Ventura would risk a libel lawsuit, but she said she didn’t recall who raised them.
Olson used her testimony mostly as an opportunity to play radio and TV interviews that Chris Kyle gave shortly after the book’s release in 2012 in which he disclosed that “Scruff Face” was Ventura, as well as a recorded conversation with one of his co-authors as they wrote the book.
“I hate him with a passion,” Kyle told co-author Jim DeFelice about Ventura.
Some interviewers who accepted Kyle’s version of events slammed Ventura in blistering terms. Glenn Beck called Ventura “a dirtbag” in an Internet interview on The Blaze.
Ventura, who has hosted several cable TV shows since his single term as Minnesota’s governor ended in 2002, has said his job offers dried up after the book was published and he was worried about being seen as a traitor to the military.
Ventura, who often had a contentious relationship with the Minnesota media, declined to speak to reporters about the case. He watched Tuesday’s proceedings with a serious look on his face most of the time, occasionally cracking a smile while speaking with his attorneys.
Legal experts have said Ventura has to prove that Kyle made up the story and profited from it, or at least acted with reckless disregard for the truth, and that Ventura’s reputation was hurt as a result.
Significant money is at stake. Kyle’s book has made more than $3 million in royalties and the judge in the case has ruled that profits from an upcoming movie could be subject to damages, too.