A jury has awarded more than $25m in damages against white nationalist leaders for violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville.
The defendants were accused of promoting and then carrying out racially motivated violence during the “Unite the Right” rally. After a nearly monthlong civil trial, a jury in US district court in Charlottesville deadlocked on two claims but found the white nationalists liable on four other counts in the lawsuit that was filed by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan said the plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to refile the suit so a new jury can decide the two claims this jury could not reach a verdict on. She called the amount of damages awarded from the other counts “eye opening”.
“That sends a loud message,” Kaplan said.
The verdict, though mixed, is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organizations who were accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews and others in a meticulously planned conspiracy.
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to appeal. He said plaintiffs’ attorneys made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and other defendants.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs invoked a 150-year-old law passed after the civil war to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. Commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, the law contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on 11-12 August 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen Robert E Lee.
During a march on the University of Virginia grounds, white nationalists surrounded counterprotesters, shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” and threw burning tiki torches at them. The next day, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler intentionally drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19.
Then-president Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides”.
James Alex Fields Jr of Maumee, Ohio, is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes for the car attack. He is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Fields is one of 24 defendants named in the lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville.
The lawsuit accused some of the country’s most well-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the “crying Nazi” for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counter demonstrators.
The trial featured emotional testimony from people who were struck by Fields’ car or witnessed the attacks as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.
Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields’ car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, had been killed.
“I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people that were there. It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere. I was terrified,” said Blair, who became tearful several times during her testimony.
During their testimony, some of the defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed one another and the anti-fascist political movement known as antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend.
In closing arguments to the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs had not proved that they conspired to commit violence at the rally.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs showed the jury a vast collection of chat room exchanges, text messages and social media postings by the defendants to demonstrate the extent of their communications before the rally and try to prove their claim that they planned the violence well in advance.
“If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self defense don’t open carry,” Kessler wrote in a message about two months before the rally. “You will scare the shit out of them and they’ll just stand off to the side.”
The white nationalists maintained there was no conspiracy, and their blustery talk before the rally was just rhetoric and is protected by the first amendment.
Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against an additional seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.