The Unite the Right rally was held on August 11 and 12 in 2017 to oppose the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. As the violence unfolded, it reached a tipping point when James Fields — who was protesting the statue’s removal — drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Fourteen people and 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations were sued in a civil lawsuit by some rallygoers and others who argue they suffered life-altering injuries at the protest.
The plaintiffs, who include town residents and counterprotesters injured in clashes, are seeking compensatory and statutory damages for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered due to the rally. They also contend rally organizers engaged in a conspiracy and planned the violence to ignite a race and religious war.
Defense attorneys and two high-profile defendants who are representing themselves argued none of the plaintiffs had proven the defendants had organized racial violence.
Closing arguments concluded Thursday — sending the legal battle to the jury.
The jurors are expected to get the verdict forms at 9 a.m. Friday and start deliberating shortly afterward.
US District Judge Norman K. Moon said that after Friday, if the jury has not reached a judgment, court will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Only time I change that if all the jurors agree and want to go beyond that,” Moon said.
The jury will decide in each instance whether a defendant is liable for damages. In a civil trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys have to show a defendant is liable by a “preponderance of evidence,” Moon told jurors, meaning 50.1% or greater chance of the claim is true.
To succeed, the plaintiffs must prove the existence of a conspiracy involving two or more people, according to instructions given to the jurors.
Also, plaintiffs must prove that the conspiracy was partially motivated by “animus” toward Black or Jewish people or because the plaintiffs supported those communities and that such conspiracy aimed to deprive them of their right to be free from racially motivated violence, the jury instructions say.
Finally, the plaintiffs must prove that at least one person in the conspiracy “took an overt act” in continuing the racial violence and that the plaintiffs were injured because of that act, according to the instructions.
The plaintiffs who were hit by Fields’ car are seeking $7 million to $10 million in compensatory damages while others are asking for $3 million to $5 million, according to one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Roberta Kaplan.
It doesn’t matter that some defendants didn’t know each other, plaintiffs’ attorney says
A large team of powerful lawyers under the umbrella of the non-profit Integrity First for America are representing the plaintiffs in their civil case.
On Thursday during closing arguments, attorneys for the plaintiffs told the jury that the defendants had prepared for the “Battle of Charlottesville,” and messages sent between them and their actions after the violence were proof of a conspiracy.
Kaplan told the jurors that they should find the defendants liable “under the law, under the facts and under common sense.”
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Karen Dunn, pointed to defendant Christopher Cantwell‘s involvement in the rally alleging, “He was there because he had an enormous following of armed extremists. … He could promote, facilitate and execute violence.”
Dunn also demonstrated to jury how the rally organizers put out calls to get shields and bring other weapons, including flagpoles and pepper spray, which they referred to as “gas.”
She also showed messages from other White supremacists who support the idea that demonstrators in the street should be run over.
“This is reasonable foreseeability,” said Dunn said, arguing that all the members are liable for this.
“The evidence in this case is crystal clear that this plan went as intended,” Dunn said.
Dunn noted that many of the defendants claim they didn’t know what was going on or that they didn’t know each other, but “that doesn’t matter, they’re still part of the conspiracy.”
“This is about the use of force. This was about occupying space and that was the plan for the Battle of Charlottesville,” Dunn said.
Defense says they didn’t initiate deadly violence
James Kolenich, attorney for Jason Kessler and two other defendants, told the jury, “Hearing all this testimony or hearing all this from the plaintiffs, I want you to say, ‘So what.'”
He said the horrific injuries that many of the plaintiffs suffered “don’t prove a conspiracy. And the plaintiffs never claimed they did.”
Spencer, who is defending himself, said he was not part of a conspiracy because he never participated in chats on an app used by other defendants. Then, in a tense moment between Spencer and the judge, Spencer recalled then-President Donald Trump’s infamous statement about the rally: “There were good people on both sides.”
But Moon told him that quote was never entered into evidence. Spencer said he agreed with the sentiment, ignoring the judge’s orders.”There were some bad people on both sides,” Spencer said, referring to antifa.
The defense notably displayed less cohesion than the plaintiffs — oftentimes shifting the blame for the violence, arguing they didn’t like each other, taking snipes at one another and alleging they barely knew each other.
They have said they did not initiate the deadly violence that ensued, arguing they were exercising their First Amendment right to protest. They also say there was no conspiracy, and the violence stemmed from law enforcement’s failure to keep the opposing groups separated.