The civil trial over the 2017 dead white supremacist party rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended with a divisive verdict on Tuesday, with jurors failing to reach an agreement on negative charges. federal counsel but awarded more than $25 million to plaintiffs in aggregate damages.
After a third day of deliberations, the decision by seven white and four black jurors found that the jurors agreed that the defendants violated Virginia conspiracy laws, but not the laws of federal. The decision rejected the defense that the trial represented a referendum on free speech.
The jurors imposed $500,000 in punitive damages against some defendants and $1 million against several organizations under state conspiracy claims. However, they limit the amount of damages awarded to claimants on that claim to no more than $1 per claimant.
The jury found that the plaintiffs’ attorneys substantiated the claim of racial or religious violence under Virginia law. The panel awarded $250,000 in punitive damages each to two plaintiffs and $200,000 in punitive damages to several defendants.
The jury also imposed a $12 million punitive penalty on James Alex Fields, who drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. He had previously been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The case represents the latest strategy in decades of using civil lawsuits to corrupt hostile groups by attacking their finances. Despite the size of the jury awards, it remains unclear whether the defendants will be able to pay.
The decision came after jurors sent a letter to US District Court Judge Norman Moon on Monday morning saying they had been unable to reach a unanimous decision that the plaintiffs had proven three in the first six claims preponderant evidence or not. Those include allegations that defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence, knew of a conspiracy and failed to prevent it, and were part of a civil conspiracy under Virginia law.
“This case sends a clear message: violent hatred will not be resolved,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, an organization that organizes the civil lawsuit. answer. There will be responsibility”.
The case focuses on two days in August, four years before hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Clean white men marched with tiki torches lit and chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” Fighting broke out between white supremacists and protesters.
The groundbreaking lawsuit was filed shortly after protests by Charlottesville residents, who said they had been physically or mentally harmed by the violence. Nine plaintiffs, including a minister, students and other Charlottesville residents, pursued the case, supported by the nonprofit civil rights organization Integrity First for America.
The defendants represent a “who is who” of the far right. They include Richard Spencer, a former leader of the so-called “alt-right” white nationalist and supremacist movement, Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster serving a prison sentence for extortion, and white nationalist Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the rally.
Also charged was Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who founded the Evropa Identity Group.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that evidence showed the defendants planned the protest knowing that violence would follow.
The defendants, 24 individuals and organisations, admitted to espousing racist and anti-racist views but denied they had instigated them.
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Prove a conspiracy
The plaintiffs brought the case to trial under the federal Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law that allows individuals to sue when violent conspiracies deprive them of their constitutional rights. Laws enacted after Klan violence prevented newly freed slaves from exercising their rights as full citizens.
Not only did the plaintiffs have to prove that their injuries were caused by the Right-wing Solidarity protest, but the defendants participated in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence that caused those injuries.
To do so, they relied on a host of evidence, including hundreds of text messages between the defendants and hundreds of thousands of leaked communications from Discord, a messaging platform many of used by the organizer leading up to the event.
Throughout the trial, the defendants remained unrepentant about their racist beliefs. Some used the courtroom as a stage to praise the notorious Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or mock the Holocaust. At one point during the conclusion of the arguments, a defense lawyer played a video recruiting neo-Nazis.
The defendants sought to distance themselves from the central planning of the event and argued that they never intended the protest to turn violent. In his instructions to jurors about the conspiracy claims, Moon said they only had to agree that there was preponderance of evidence that “there was a mutual understanding, whether spoken or not, between the attackers.” mastermind to commit at least one illegal act.”
Spencer expressed regret for the events and Heyer’s death. He and Cantwell tried to present the trial as a referendum on First Amendment rights. Moon, who presided over the trial for more than three weeks, cut those arguments and advised the defendants to stick to the facts of the case.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys presented evidence designed to show that the defendants conspired to plan the protest, knew it would turn violent, and celebrated when it did.
Lawyers showed a video of the defendants discussing how well the protest went. Other evidence included the defendants’ communications and social media posts talking about what devices they would bring to Charlottesville and signaling that they could hurt anyone who appeared against them. surname.
“We are raising an army, for free speech, but will have a skull fracture if it happens,” read one of the text messages between co-defendants Kessler and Spencer.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Bloch noted a Facebook post in which Cantwell wrote: “if you think the right to substitute is trivial, you might want to ask if the bleeding trash we sent you was sent in,” wrote Cantwell. Go to morgues and hospitals to see how insignificant we are.”
During the cross-examination, Bloch asked Cantwell, “When you say ‘bleeding garbage that we send to the morgue’, do you mean Heather Heyer?”
“Yes,” Cantwell replied.
A legitimate tactic to stop extremists
The case follows a successful decades-long tradition of using the civil courts to destroy groups of whites and haters. Spencer said before the trial that the case was financial lame.
During the 1980s and ’90s, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued several chapters of the Klan on behalf of plaintiffs who had been intimidated or threatened. Lawsuits caused those branches to file for bankruptcy or close.
The plaintiffs had previously won unsuccessful judgments against seven of the 24 defendants.
The court imposed five-figure fines on three other defendants for failing to present evidence or for failing to appear for trial or deposit, court records show.