The civil trial over the deadly 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in a split verdict Tuesday, with jurors failing to reach agreement on a federal conspiracy charge but awarding more than $25 million to the plaintiffs in combined damages.
Coming after a third day of deliberations, the decision by the seven white and four Black jurors showed the jurors agreed that the defendants violated a Virginia state conspiracy law, but not a federal one. The decision rejected defense arguments that the trial represented a referendum on free speech rights.
The jurors imposed $500,000 in punitive damages against several defendants and $1 million against several organizations on the state conspiracy claim. However, they limited compensatory damages to plaintiffs on that claim to no more than $1 each.
The jury found that plaintiffs’ lawyers had proven a claim of racial or religious violence under a Virginia law. The panel awarded $250,000 each in compensatory damages to two plaintiffs and $200,000 in punitive damages against several defendants.
The jury also imposed $12 million in punitive damages against James Alex Fields, who drove a car into the Charlottesville crowd, killing Heather Heyer. He was previously convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The case represented the latest in a decades-old strategy of using civil lawsuits to hobble hate groups by attacking their finances. Despite the size of the jury awards, it was unclear whether the defendants would be able to pay.
The decision came after jurors sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon Monday morning saying they had been unable to reach unanimous decisions on whether the plaintiffs had proven the first three of six claims by a preponderance of the evidence. Those included allegations the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence, knew about a conspiracy and failed to stop it, and were part of a civil conspiracy under Virginia law.
“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, an organization that organized the civil lawsuit.
The case focused on two days in August days four years ago when hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Clean-cut white men marched with lit tiki torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Fights broke out between white supremacists and counter-protesters.
The groundbreaking lawsuit was filed shortly after the rally by Charlottesville residents who said they had been physically or mentally injured by violence. Nine plaintiffs, including a minister, students and other Charlottesville residents, pursued the case, which was supported by the nonprofit civil rights organization Integrity First for America.
The defendants represent a “who’s who” of the extremist right. They include Richard Spencer, former leader of the white supremacist and nationalist movement called the “alt-right,” Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster who is serving a prison sentence for extortion, and white nationalist Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer.
Also accused was Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who founded the Group Identity Evropa.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that evidence showed the defendants planned the rally knowing that violence would ensue.
The defendants, 24 individuals and organizations, acknowledged espousing racist and antisemitic views but denied they had conspired.
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Proving a conspiracy
The plaintiffs brought the case to trial under the federal Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era statute that allows individuals to sue when violent conspiracies deprive them of their constitutional rights. The law was enacted after Klan violence prevented newly freed slaves from exercising their rights as full citizens.
The plaintiffs had to prove not only that their injuries resulted from the Unite the Right rally, but that the defendants had been involved in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence that caused those injuries.
To do so, they relied on a trove of evidence, including hundreds of text messages among the defendants and hundreds of thousands of leaked communications from Discord, a messaging platform that many of the organizers used leading up to the event.
Throughout the trial, the defendants remained unapologetic about their racist beliefs. Some used the courtroom as a stage to praise infamous Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or mock the Holocaust. At one point during closing arguments, a lawyer for the defense played a neo-Nazi recruitment video.
The defendants sought to disassociate themselves from the central planning of the event and argued that they never intended for the rally to get violent. In his instructions to jurors about the conspiracy claim, Moon said they must agree only that a preponderance of evidence showed “there was a mutual understanding, either spoken or unspoken, between the conspirators to commit at least one unlawful act.”
Spencer expressed regret for the events and for Heyer’s death. He and Cantwell tried to cast the trial as a referendum on First Amendment rights. Moon, who presided over trial over more than three weeks, cut off those arguments and admonished the defendants to stick to the facts of the case.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs produced evidence designed to show that the defendants conspired in planning the rally, knew it would descend into violence and celebrated when it did.
The attorneys showed videos of the defendants discussing how well the rally went. Other evidence included communications and social media posts from the defendants talking about what equipment they would bring to Charlottesville and signaling they might hurt anyone who showed up to oppose them.
“We are raising an army my liege, for free speech, but for the cracking of skulls if it comes to it,” 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 alt-right is insignificant you might want to ask the bleeding commie filth we sent to the morgue and hospitals how insignificant we are.”
During cross-examination, Bloch asked Cantwell, “When you said the ‘bleeding commie filth we sent to the morgue,’ you meant Heather Heyer?”
“Yeah,” Cantwell responded.
A legal tactic to shut down extremists
The lawsuit follows a successful, decades-long tradition of using civil courts to decimate white supremacist and hate groups. Spencer said before the trial that the case had been financially crippling.
In 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. The lawsuits caused those chapters to file for bankruptcy or shut down.
The plaintiffs previously won default judgments against seven of the 24 defendants.
The court has issued five-figure fines against three other defendants for failing to produce evidence or show up for court hearings or depositions, court files show.