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Rally's organizers liable, jury decides

$26 million awarded in lawsuit filed over deadly Charlottesville event by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | November 24, 2021 at 8:04 a.m.

Prominent white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, Christopher Cantwell and others engaged in a conspiracy to intimidate, harass or harm in advance of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, a jury has ruled.

The jury did not reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy charges, but it did find that every defendant was liable for civil conspiracy under Virginia law.

The jury then awarded a total of $26 million in damages against the 12 individual defendants and five white nationalist organizations on trial.

More than half that money is owed by James Fields Jr., an avowed Hitler admirer who is serving a life sentence for ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during the rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people.


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The 11 jurors needed only to find "a preponderance of the evidence," rather than the higher bar of "beyond reasonable doubt" in criminal trials. But they deadlocked on two federal claims of a race-based conspiracy, while agreeing that there was a conspiracy under state law and the victims were entitled to compensation.

Nine people who said they suffered physical and emotional harm filed the lawsuit, which was underpinned by a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan. The act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil-rights violations.

Under those claims, the plaintiffs asked the jury to find that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and that they knew about the conspiracy but failed to stop it from being carried out -- the claims on which jurors could not agree.

Four of the plaintiffs were struck in the car attack, including Marcus Martin, who was captured in that moment of terror, midair and tumbling over the car. He had pushed his then-fiancee and another plaintiff in the suit, Marissa Blair, out of the way.

The nearly monthlong trial featured emotional testimony from people struck by Fields' car or who witnessed the attacks, as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.

Blair testified of the horror of seeing her fiance bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend 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 grew tearful.

FINGER-POINTING

During their own 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 broke out the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017.

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.

Hundreds of white nationalists had descended on Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted "Jews will not replace us," surrounded counterprotesters and threw tiki torches at them.

Then-President Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, instead saying that there were "very fine people on both sides."

Of the damages granted, more than $14 million was assessed against Fields.

For engaging in a conspiracy to harm, harass or intimidate, each of the 12 defendants was ordered to pay $500,000, and five white supremacist organizations were ordered to pay $1 million each, for a total of $11 million. Fields was included in the 12 defendants ordered to pay $500,000.

For engaging in racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence, five defendants were ordered to collectively pay two plaintiffs $500,000 in compensation for their injuries as well as $1 million in punitive damages.

Two of the counts were specific to Fields. He was ordered to pay more than $1.5 million to compensate plaintiffs for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered because of his attack, as well as $12 million in punitive damages, for a total of $13.5 million, plus the $500,000 from the conspiracy count.

DEFENSE REACTIONS

After the verdict was read, James Kolenich, who represents two individual defendants and the group Identity Evropa, said he will try to reduce the damages in future court hearings: "We're going to do what we can to cut this down to size."

Joshua Smith, an attorney for two defendants and the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party, also said he will ask the court to reduce the punitive damages awards. But he described the verdict as a "big win" for his clients because of the relatively modest compensatory damages.

In a statement, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the civil-rights group behind the lawsuit, said, "We are committed to ensuring our plaintiffs can collect on these judgments -- and that the defendants cannot escape liability."

Outside the courthouse, plaintiffs' lawyers Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan claimed victory and appeared relieved by the jury's decision.

But they also indicated that they planned to try the defendants again on the two federal civil-rights claims that left the jury divided.

"We intend to get a verdict on those counts," Kaplan said, calling the amount of damages awarded Tuesday "eye-opening."

"We think that is a resounding verdict today and, frankly, a good sign for the future on the remaining counts," Dunn said.

The verdict, though mixed, is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly those accused of orchestrating violence against Blacks, Jews and others in a meticulously planned conspiracy.

VOW TO APPEAL

White nationalist leader Spencer -- who coined the term "alt-right" to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others -- vowed to appeal, saying the "entire theory of that verdict is fundamentally flawed."

He said plaintiffs' attorneys made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and other defendants.

"It was activism by means of lawsuits, and that is absolutely outrageous," he said. "I'm doing fine right now because I had kind of accepted in my heart the worst that could happen. I had hope, of course, but I'm not terribly surprised or crestfallen."

Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed, said the verdict "sends a very clear message that hate speech put into action has consequences."

"The defendants were convicted with their own words that showed months of planning went into the rally. This was not a spontaneous event," she said.

The lawsuit was financed by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit formed in response to the Charlottesville violence.

Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.

Information for this article was contributed by Ellie Silverman, Ian Shapira, Rachel Weiner and Tom Jackman of The Washington Post; and by Denise Lavoie, Mike Kunzelman and Sarah Rankin of The Associated Press.


Print Headline: Rally's organizers liable, jury decides

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