Jesse Ventura, former Navy SEAL (yes, he really was), pro-wrestler, Minnesota governor, and TV host, prevailed Tuesday in his defamation suit against the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. A jury awarded Ventura $1.845 million over a passage in Kyle’s 2012 book American Sniper, in which Kyle recounts a 2006 fight inside a bar after a fallen serviceman’s wake. Kyle wrote that he and his group encountered a character named “Scruff Face,” who insulted George W. Bush, slammed the Iraq War, and even added the horrific sneer that SEALs “deserved to lose a few.” A fight ensued and, according to Kyle, “being level-headed and calm can last only so long.”
“I laid him out,” he writes. “Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.” He added that Scruff Face reportedly had a black eye the next day.
The news transformed Ventura into one of the most hated men in America and persona non grata in the military and veteran communities. TV-show deals for Ventura, who had developed a career as a television host with a penchant for exploring conspiracy theories, reportedly dried up as a result.
But then a curious thing happened: Ventura immediately came forth, not issuing the standard press release with a banal denial but rather resolutely and categorically denying he ever made such statements, and affirming that he was never knocked in that California bar or was never in any altercation with Kyle.
For those of us paying attention, Kyle’s story seemed fishy from the get-go. Why would Ventura make such remarks in the company of friends and fellow SEALs, especially those who were at a bar as part of a wake for a fallen warrior? Only a hair-raisingly evil person would say they “deserve to lose a few,” much less to men who have just buried a fellow soldier. While Ventura has been quite publicly critical of both Bush and much U.S. policy (and, for the record, I am not excusing his views), hatred of individual servicemen is a whole other ballgame.
But, this was Chris Kyle, a war hero (!), and thus all blindly believed him.
Ventura asked for a retraction and an apology. He received none. So he proceeded with a defamation lawsuit.
Legal experts claimed Ventura had no shot. A widow crying on the stand? Too sympathetic. A decorated war hero who was tragically killed (in an unrelated accident after Ventura filed suit)? Too sympathetic. Ventura was facing an almost insurmountable uphill battle in an already tricky area of the law.
Once the trial actually began, however, the truth began to emerge. For instance, Kyle, who sat for a lengthy video deposition prior to his death, was inconsistent in his story, described by one local reporter with the following headline: “In video deposition, author trips up on fight details in Ventura libel suit.” The Minneapolis Star-Tribune describes the testimony:
Afternoon testimony may have shifted some sympathy to Ventura’s side. In the deposition, videotaped a year before his death, Chris Kyle said he could not remember who told him that Ventura had hit his head when he fell to the sidewalk, could not recall how he learned that Ventura had a black eye, and conceded that tables did not go “flying” during the 2006 confrontation in a bar near San Diego, which he described in his book “American Sniper.”
After a thorough trial, in which the jury listened to multiple witnesses from both sides, the jury found in favor of Ventura, finding Kyle had indeed defamed the former wrestler. The court awarded Ventura more than $1.8 million (far lower than the amount Ventura sought), consisting of $500,000 for defamation damages and an additional $1.3 million for “unjust enrichment” (meaning that Kyle and his estate wrongly profited from said defamation). The book publisher’s libel insurance will cover the $500,000.
Social media, even journalists, became downright hysterical, insulting Ventura and making knee-jerk defenses of Kyle — so hysterical, in fact, that facts and logic were outright nonexistent.
Consider a few of the frantic claims, along with the facts:
MYTH: He sued a widow! What a monster!
CNN’s Anderson Cooper got in on the outrage game, tweeting: “I cannot believe that Jesse Ventura successfully sued the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. Has he no shame?”
Whoa, there. Ventura sued Kyle in 2012. Kyle died, tragically, about a year later. The lawsuit then shifted to Chris Kyle’s estate, for which his wife, Taya, is the executor. It is utterly normal for a lawsuit to shift onto the estate, especially when the estate has profited from the issue in dispute. Considering Taya herself has profited from the book (earnings are estimated at a whopping $6 million, thanks to royalties and rights), it stands to reason that the shift is appropriate.
Consider this: A decorated veteran publishes a book saying he fought with someone in a bar after hearing the man say he worshiped the devil and/or thinks child molesters are fine. During the book tour, the author is asked to identify the monster and names you. It makes headlines, helping propel the book’s sales. You file a defamation suit and, roughly a year later, the author/veteran unexpectedly dies. His multimillion dollar estate goes to his wife, an estate largely consisting of profits from the book that defamed you. Do you drop the suit?
Of course not.
MYTH: The jury must have gotten it wrong.
Yes, juries sometimes get it wrong. (Though, statistics show, not often – if you want stupidity, check out judges’ findings.) But common sense would tell you that Ventura’s case must have been exceptionally strong and Kyle’s case extremely weak if the jury held in favor of Ventura. Defamation is notoriously hard to prove, and juries do not easily find against a young widow (who cried on the stand multiple times) or a fallen war hero, let alone both.
MYTH: It’s just a case of he said vs. he said so we have no way of knowing who lied.
Actually no. There were multiple witnesses, called by both sides. Clearly, the jury found Ventura’s witnesses believable and not Kyle’s.
MYTH: Taya Kyle and the kids are now broke because of Ventura! I hope someone is setting up a fund for them!
Ms. Kyle is a multimillionaire. With the $500,000 defamation portion of the award covered by libel insurance, only $1.3 million will come out of the Kyle estate (and that’s assuming the judge even upholds that portion of the award). In light of the reported $6 million in book profits, not to mention potential profits from future book royalties (once the movie releases in 2015, the book is sure to rocket in sales again), and Kyle’s no doubt robust life-insurance policies, to claim that this is cruel or a hardship on a destitute widow is ill informed and disingenuous.
Ventura noted on CBS This Morning Wednesday: “Taya Kyle had all of her attorney fees paid by insurance. I did not. I incurred two and a half years of lawyer fees that I have to pay to clear my name, and she had insurance paying everything for her. It was me against an insurance company.” Ventura added that he will use the winnings to pay off his attorneys’ fees.
MYTH: Kyle is dead so he never had a chance to defend himself or present his side at trial!
Actually, while alive, Kyle had a chance to sit for a lengthy deposition, providing nearly five hours of video-deposition testimony that was shown to the jury.
MYTH: Even if Kyle lied about Ventura, his book sales weren’t significantly increased by that story, so Kyle did not profit from the defamation.
Wrong! In fact, the book made national headlines largely — and probably only — because of the salacious story about Ventura. Don’t believe me? No worries — take Kyle’s publicist’s word for it. At the time, the publicist remarked that the story was making the book’s sales “go crazy.”
MYTH: Ventura’s witnesses were probably just lying to protect him.
Apart from the logical flaw in inferring that only Ventura’s witnesses would lie for him and not Kyle’s, consider the testimony of Bill and Charlene DeWitt, two witnesses who were at the bar the night of the “fight”:
Bill DeWitt has known Ventura since the two underwent Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training together in 1969. . . . The DeWitts, Ventura and other BUD/S classmates . . . convened at McP’s bar the night before the ceremony — the same night Kyle and his colleagues were at the bar for the wake of slain SEAL Michael Monsoor. . . . ”I was eavesdropping on Jesse,” [Charlene DeWitt] said. She heard him criticize the war in Iraq but didn’t hear him badmouth fallen soldiers or argue with younger servicemen. She said she didn’t see him get into a fistfight or sport a black eye or bruised face in the following days. . . . Bill DeWitt also testified that he hadn’t seen or heard any of the events described in the book.
MYTH: Ventura couldn’t have possibly incurred damage to his reputation because his reputation was already ruined.
This argument is too illogical to address, but let me take a crack at it: Your reputation can always get worse.Ventura may have been considered nutty and a crackpot by some (personally, I don’t appreciate his 9/11 theories and strongly disagree with them), but he was not a hated figure. After Kyle’s story got national attention, Ventura was not only despised by many Americans but even hated by his own fellow veterans:
A petition circulated in 2013 seeking to have Ventura removed from the Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association, citing the events described in Kyle’s book and Ventura’s pursuit of the lawsuit after Kyle’s death. Dozens of military personnel signed it.
MYTH: Kyle was a perfect person and an utterly honest one.
How do we know that? While I agree that Kyle is a war hero and I respect that he tragically died while trying to help out a troubled fellow veteran, let’s not assume that because he is a war hero, he can do no wrong.
Specifically: Whatever happened to the repeated claim that the book’s proceeds would go/had gone to charity, benefiting the families of his fallen friends?
Consider what Kyle’s publisher wrote after his tragic passing: “He dedicated his life in recent years to supporting veterans and donated the proceeds of American Sniper to the families of his fallen friends” (italics mine). An article in the Blaze definitively proclaimed: “A perfect reflection of his character, Kyle gave all proceeds from his best-selling book American Sniper to the families of soldiers killed in combat” (italics mine). Or this line from a Human Events article: “For American Sniper, Kyle donated the profits from that book to charity.” Kyle himself perpetuated this idea, telling the same proceeds-went-to-charity tale to the Texas News Service and even adding that he regularly received tearful calls and letters of thanks.
And now for the kicker: It isn’t true. Out of the staggering $3 million that American Sniper collected in royalties for Kyle, only $52,000 actually went to the families of fallen servicemen. (Rather than 100 percent of the proceeds, as the public was led to believe, try 2 percent!) While Kyle’s widow claimed, in her testimony, that they never intended to profit from the book, and “wanted” to donate the money to other veterans, she said they were weren’t able to because of — get this! — “gift-tax laws that prevented them from donating more than $13,000 each to two families last year.”
When Ventura’s attorney asked why they did not simply create a nonprofit (standard practice) to be able to give away the money without gift-tax concerns, Kyle said she had not had the time to set up such a nonprofit.
Separately, she noted: “We are trying to find the right places and not just throw it away.”
It’s true that giving money away effectively is more challenging than many people realize. But it’s hard to believe neither of the Kyles was able to sort this problem out: Surely it is quite easy to locate the struggling families of fallen servicemen. And the challenges of setting up a nonprofit don’t excuse the Kyles’ and the publisher’s strongly implying, and allowing others to claim unambiguously, that they were giving all the money away when this was clearly not true.
Why is there no concern for those families of other veterans — many of whom, unlike Kyle’s supposedly destitute widow, probably are struggling financially? Do those families, who were supposed to receive help, not matter?
So what does this all demonstrate, and why should it matter?
For one, Americans are showing a disturbing level of either support or disregard for the legal system — based solely on what they think of the parties involved. That is a dangerous approach. It’s against the fundamentals of justice to decide how you feel about a case based on how much you like the defendant or plaintiff, rather than the facts.
More important, however, it demonstrates a worrisome level of blind hero worship. The idea that, because Kyle served his country bravely and honorably, he was therefore always honorable in all aspects of his life, and can do no wrong, ever, is preposterous. As Pocket Full of Liberty’s editor Skyler Mann wondered: “Not about Chris Kyle in particular but the hullaboo makes me wonder: if a veteran does something super sh**** is it OK because s/he’s a vet?”
A jury, with far more information than we the public have (including the chance to listen to witness testimony and watch Kyle’s deposition), essentially found that Kyle lied. The fact that many conservatives are furiously shaking their heads, refusing to accept this, and taking it even further by attacking Ventura for daring to clear his name is extremely disturbing. Ventura is the jerk for suing to restore his reputation — not Chris Kyle for lying and making an easy target sound like a demon, for the sake of financial gain and publicity.
Got it, that makes perfect sense. We supported George Zimmerman’s defamation lawsuit, but not Jesse Ventura’s. Apparently, it’s not the merits or facts of the case, but rather how likeable the parties are, that determines whom American public opinion supports. Listening to the outrage brigade on social media, big on demagoguery but short on facts, one can conclude that (a) widows can never be sued nor are capable of unjustly profiting and (b) war heroes are perfect in every regard of their lives, forever.
This is blind hero worship, at its most embarrassing.
— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.