The city of Charlottesville, Va., is in the midst of a major redevelopment project Damages totaling more than $26 million were awarded to 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations Tuesday in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Two of nine plaintiffs’ claims against the white nationalists were rejected by a jury in a nearly month-long civil trial in U.S. District Court, but the jury found them liable on four other claims.
According to plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan, a new jury will be summoned and two deadlocked claims will be decided. It was “eye-opening” to her how much money had been awarded on the other counts.
Reactions to the white nationalist movement have been mixed, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organizations who were charged in a federal lawsuit with orchestrating violence against African Americans and Jews.
Richard Spencer, the leader of the white nationalist movement, said that the “whole theory of that verdict is fundamentally flawed,” and vowed to appeal.
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It was made clear to him and other defendants prior to the trial that the plaintiffs’ attorneys intended to use the case to bankrupt them, he said.
There is no justification for this type of “activist activism” through litigation, he said. In my heart, I’m fine right now because I’ve already figured out how bad things could get. However, I’m not surprised or devastated by the outcome.”
After the Civil War, a federal law was passed to protect freed slaves from violence and ensure their civil rights, but jurors were unable to reach unanimous decisions on two pivotal claims. Civil rights violations can be sued by private citizens under the Ku Klux Klan Act, which is rarely used.
According to those claims, the plaintiffs requested that the jury find that the defendants were involved in a racially motivated violence conspiracy and that they were aware of the conspiracy but did nothing to stop it. Those were the only claims on which the jurors couldn’t agree.
The jury found the defendants liable for the plaintiffs’ $11 million in damages under a Virginia state law conspiracy claim. On the other hand, jurors ruled that five of the organizers of the rally were also responsible for the alleged intimidation, harassment, or violence that was motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity of two of the plaintiffs. Damages totaling $1.5 million were awarded to the plaintiffs by the jury.
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured when James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, an avowed Hitler fan. On an assault or battery claim, six plaintiffs were awarded $6.8 million in damages against Fields, who is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes. Plaintiffs who claimed Fields intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them were awarded nearly $6.7 million by the jury.
The verdict “sends a very clear message that hate speech put into action has consequences,” Susan Bro, the mother of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer, said.
By relying on their own words, the defendants were found guilty of a crime that required months of planning. According to Bro, who was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, “This was not a spontaneous event.”
On August 11 and 12, 2017, hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Counterprotesters at the University of Virginia were surrounded by white nationalists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and threw tiki torches at them during a march.
A political firestorm erupted when then-President Donald Trump failed to denounce white nationalists immediately and said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
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Some of the country’s most well-known white nationalists, including Jason Kessler, who organized the rally, and Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalist and neo-Nazis, are among those named in a lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville.
According to Joshua Smith, a lawyer for defendants Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott, and the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party, he intends on requesting that the court reduce the number of punitive damages awarded against his clients. Due to the relatively low amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury, Smith referred to the verdict as a “big win” for his clients.
Many people who were injured by Fields’ car testified in emotional detail, as did those who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.
Bystander Melissa Blair described seeing her fiancé bleeding to death and learning later that her friend Heyer had been killed in a car accident.
“I had no idea what to make of it. Fear gripped me. I feared for the well-being of everyone in attendance. It was a terrifying scene, to say the least. There was a lot of blood all over the place. In her testimony, Blair broke down in tears, saying, “I was terrified.”
Some of the defendants used racial slurs and proclaimed their support for white supremacy during their testimony. Some of them also pointed the finger of blame at each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as Antifa.
To distance themselves from Fields and deny that they had planned to commit violence at the rally, the defendants and their attorneys made closing arguments to the jury on Friday.
Another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit were issued default judgments by Judge Norman Moon prior to the trial. Those defendants’ damages will be decided by the court.
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Mike Kunzelman, an AP reporter based in College Park, Maryland, contributed. Sarah Rankin, an AP reporter based in Richmond, contributed.
Damages total more than $26 million, according to an updated version of this story.
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