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Ventura case goes to jury

ST. PAUL — It would take 11 witnesses and a decorated Navy SEAL lying under oath for jurors to side with Jesse Ventura in his defamation case against Chris Kyle, defense attorneys said Tuesday.

Ventura’s lawyers argued the accounts of those witnesses were so full of holes and inconsistencies that it’s not hard to see how they got it wrong.

The two sides made their closing arguments Tuesday before they handed off the two-week-long trial to a jury of six men and four women. At issue: whether Kyle, a SEAL sniper-turned-author, made up a story about punching out the former Minnesota governor at a Coronado, Calif., bar in 2006.

Jurors got the case around noon Tuesday. They broke for the day a few minutes before 4:30 p.m. without reaching a verdict. They’ll resume deliberations this morning.

Kyle wrote in his 2012 best seller “American Sniper” that he slugged a celebrity at the bar after the man badmouthed fallen soldiers at a war hero’s wake.

Ventura, who was at the bar for a reunion of his own Navy class, said that never happened. He sued Kyle after he was identified as the subject of the story in promotional interviews for the book, and continued the lawsuit against Kyle’s estate after Kyle was shot to death at a Texas gun range last year.

Jurors were instructed to focus their deliberations on whether Ventura made offensive statements — that he hated America, that SEALs were killing innocent people in Iraq and that they deserved to lose men at war. For Ventura to win, they must find the story was false and that Kyle knew as much or told it without regard for the truth.

Over the course of the trial, defense attorneys presented testimony from people, including current and former SEALs, who were at the bar that night and said they saw or heard elements of Kyle’s story take place. Some said they heard Ventura make offensive remarks, such as saying the SEALs “deserve to lose a few” men in the Iraq war. Others said they saw Kyle hit him, or saw Ventura on the ground or getting up.

The details of their accounts didn’t always match up, but “they all agree that something happened,” said John Borger, an attorney for the Kyle estate.

“If you believe that something happened that night,” Borger said, “then Jesse Ventura has a huge problem.”

The discrepancies in witness accounts were normal for eyewitness testimony of a night eight years in the past, he said. He argued they didn’t change the gist of the story — and that it would actually have been more suspicious if everyone’s stories matched perfectly.

He said Ventura’s career and penchant for controversial statements make it easy to see how the former professional wrestling star and entertainment personality could have stepped over the line and said the wrong things in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even if Kyle’s story was wrong, Borger said, there still isn’t enough evidence to show the author lied on purpose. And he said there certainly isn’t enough evidence to show Ventura was harmed by the story.

Pressing on with the lawsuit after Kyle’s death was far more damaging to Ventura than anything Kyle wrote or said, Borger argued.

The case, he said, “is about the measure of two very different men” — a straightforward combat veteran determined to help others, and a fading celebrity concerned only with attention and with himself.

David Olsen, an attorney for Ventura, said Ventura had been left with no choice but to continue the lawsuit or let Kyle’s lies about him stand.

He said the defense’s witnesses didn’t offer nearly the degree of ironclad corroboration Kyle suggested they would in his deposition in the case.

Jurors don’t need to believe they were all lying, he said, to think they were wrong.

With the story circulating and memories hazy — and sometimes clouded by alcohol — “at some point it becomes difficult for them to distinguish between what actually happened and what they would like to believe,” Olsen said.

If Ventura had been hit in the face by a trained SEAL in peak physical condition, he would have bruised, Olsen said. Photos from the next few days didn’t seem to show that.

“Everyone in this room knows that didn’t happen,” Olsen said of the punch. And if Kyle lied about the punch, he asked, “What else did he lie about?”

He showed a map of the bar with markers for where and when different witnesses said they saw parts of the fight unfold. Eventually he put all the markers on the map at the same time, creating a scattershot scene that he said reflected the gulfs among different accounts.

“That’s what happens when you make stories up,” he said. He said Kyle’s own testimony about lying to avoid getting in trouble for a bar fight while he was on active duty showed that soldiers are willing to lie to back each other up.

Olsen suggested the most offensive remarks Ventura is said to have made — that SEALs deserved to lose men in the war — was a misinterpretation of Ventura’s comments about military tactics. Ventura in fact said that if SEALs were deployed for daytime operations with other units, they were going to lose men, Olsen said.

Olsen said sales of “American Sniper” took off after Kyle identified Ventura as the subject of the bar fight story. The story killed job offers and shredded the former Underwater Demolition Team member’s standing in the military community, Olsen said. (The UDT unit later merged with the SEALs.)

“He can’t get that back now,” he said.

He said an award as high as $15 million would be “a reasonable amount” given the way Ventura had been damaged. But whatever amount the jury decided on, “your verdict will tell the world that Chris Kyle’s story is a lie,” Olsen said.

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