Organizers of 2017’s deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia were ordered by a jury on Tuesday to pay more than $25 million in damages to nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries as a result of the demonstration.
The jury found that the defendants, a mix of individuals and organizations, had committed conspiracy under Virginia laws and were therefore liable for damages caused by the rally. The jury, however, did not reach verdicts on two federal conspiracy charges.
The partial verdict comes after a four-week trial. The defendants included Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally, and Christopher Cantwell, who featured prominently in a viral Vice report on the violence.
The Washington Post summarizes their defense:
Defendants did not shy away from their racist beliefs, dismissed messages seeming to call for violence as hyperbolic jokes and attempted to shift the blame for the rally’s mayhem to each other, counterprotesters and police inaction.
At times, court proceedings have sounded like a far-right conspiracy podcast with slurs for racial and religious minorities, calls for an all-White ethno-state and praise of racist pseudoscience. Two defendants represented themselves without an attorney, meaning co-defendants were able to directly cross-examine each other and directly question the plaintiffs.
Defendants and their attorneys argued they came to Charlottesville with one purpose: to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“The plaintiffs, all from Charlottesville, described broken bones, bloodshed and emotional trauma resulting from the mayhem,” reports NBC News.
The outlet adds:
Among the evidence were text messages, social media posts and conversations on Discord, an online chat platform, in which organizers discussed and meticulously planned the two-day event, which turned deadly when James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man who revered Hitler, rammed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist. Dozens were also injured in the car attack, including four of the plaintiffs.
The Times adds:
In seeking to prove that the violence was foreseeable, the plaintiffs highlighted how often the idea of hitting protesters with cars came up beforehand.
Samantha Froelich, who was dating two of the main organizers simultaneously in the leadup to the rally, but who has since left the movement, testified that hitting protesters with cars was discussed at a party earlier that summer in the “Fash Loft,” short for fascist, the nickname for Mr. Spencer’s apartment in Alexandria, Va.
Buzzfeed News reports that Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, which helped craft the lawsuit, lauded the mixed verdict:
[Spitalnick] said she hopes the decision will bankrupt and dismantle violent hate groups and deter and prevent neo-Nazis and others like them from planning and committing racially motivated violence in the future.
To some extent, the trial itself already did that; Richard Spencer, the former alt-right leader, said the lawsuit had been “financially crippling.” Many of his codefendants have also faced legal trouble, been kicked off of mainstream social media platforms, and been banned from raising money on crowdfunding websites in the four years since the lawsuit was filed.
According to The Times:
The federal charges on which the jury deadlocked related to whether the defendants had engaged in a race-based violent conspiracy, which is illegal under an 1871 federal law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act that was designed to prevent vigilantes from denying newly freed slaves their civil rights. The plaintiffs said they would seek a retrial on the federal charges.