The violence turned the Virginia city into another battleground in America’s culture wars and highlighted growing polarization. It was also an event that empowered White supremacists and nationalists to demonstrate their beliefs in public rather than just online.
The jury said Tuesday it could not reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy claims but it reached verdicts on the other claims.
The first federal conspiracy claim was the most prominent against the defendants because it alleged the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence while the second alleged the defendants had knowledge of a conspiracy and failed to prevent it.
“We are thrilled that the jury has delivered a verdict in favor of our plaintiffs, finally giving them the justice they deserve after the horrific weekend of violence and intimidation in August 2017,” plaintiffs’ attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn said.
“Today’s verdict sends a loud and clear message that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of this this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens.”
One defense attorney called it a win.
“It’s a politically charged situation. It’s going to be hard to get 11 people to agree,” said attorney Joshua Smith who represented three defendants. “I consider a hung jury to be a win, considering a disparity of resources.”
The events surrounding August 11-12, 2017, saw White nationalists and supremacists marching through Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a phrase evoking Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity.
The violence — which enveloped the rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — reached a crescendo when Fields, who was protesting the statue’s removal, sped his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Some of the most prominent figures of the alt-right — Jason Kessler, Matthew Heimbach, Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell — were among the defendants.
In a civil trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys only have to show a defendant is liable by a “preponderance of evidence,” which means a 50.1% or greater chance of a claim being true.
Millions in damages awarded
A jury awarded the plaintiffs $11 million in punitive damages on a Virginia conspiracy claim. Each defendant is liable for $500,000 each. Five organizations are liable for $1 million each.
The jury only awarded $7 to the plaintiffs in compensatory damages.
In general, compensatory damages compensate (or make whole) the injured party for their loss or injury. Punitive damages are considered punishment when the defendant’s behavior is found to be particularly harmful, such as if the defendant intentionally engaged in willful misconduct.
For claim four, defendants Kessler, Spencer, Cantwell, Elliott Kline and Robert “Azzmador” Ray were found liable for punitive damages each of $200,000. Plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis were awarded $250,000 each in compensatory damages.
In the same claim, the jury also found James Alex Fields Jr. liable, but did not award any damages.
It also found Fields liable for $12 million in punitive damages total for claims five and six. Jurors awarded $803,277 in compensatory damages to five plaintiffs for the assault or battery claim.
Fields, who is serving multiple life sentences in prison, didn’t testify in the trial, but was represented by an attorney.
A few criminal cases resulted from the events surrounding the rally — including state and federal convictions of Fields, who is serving multiple life sentences for killing Heyer — but there were no large-scale trials of organizers from the Justice Department under the Trump or Biden administrations.
The civil lawsuit in federal court sought to impose consequences on those who planned the rally and Fields for the people he injured or traumatized when he ran his Dodge Challenger into the crowd.
But even before the trial, the plaintiffs had won in some ways due to the national outrage over the violence. Richard Spencer stopped his public speaking tour and has called the case “financially crippling.” Jeff Schoep and Heimbach renounced White supremacy and stopped organizing White power activity in public.
Schoep gave the group he led for more than two decades, the National Socialist Movement, to a Black civil rights activist who died shortly thereafter. Identity Evropa, one of the groups named in the suit, rebranded under a new name twice before disbanding.
Fourteen people and 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations were named in the lawsuit that prompted the trial, but a few were not involved in the verdicts because they didn’t show up for court and were the subjects of default judgments.
In closing arguments last week, attorneys representing the plaintiffs told the jury that the defendants prepared for the “Battle of Charlottesville” and messages sent between them and their actions after the violence were proof of a conspiracy.
Defense attorneys and two high-profile defendants who are representing themselves countered that none of the plaintiffs had proven the defendants had organized racial violence.