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A Virginia jury ruled that a group of white nationalists who organized the murderous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was likely to have engaged in a conspiracy before the violent protest, granting the plaintiffs who brought the case over $ 25 million in damages.
But after three days of deliberation, jurors were unable to rule on two federal conspiracy charges over whether the organizers conspired to commit racially-motivated violence or whether they were aware of it and were not aware of it. failed to prevent it. Both crimes fall under federal civil law known as the KKK law.
Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell and other white supremacists and neo-Nazis were ordered to pay the nine plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit millions in compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional injuries.
The plaintiffs – all residents or former residents of Charlottesville – sued a group of two dozen white nationalist activists and organizations in federal court. They alleged that the rally organizers and participants conspired to commit acts of violence and interfered with their 13th Amendment right not to experience racially motivated violence.
During the two-day rally in August 2017, neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens more. Four of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit say they were hit in the car attack, while others say they continue to suffer from severe psychological distress from the incident.
Nearly half of the jury’s damages were against Fields, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. He was among those named in the lawsuit as defendants. Kessler, one of the main organizers of the rally, was also named. Other well-known white nationalists and white supremacists, including Spencer, Cantwell, Andrew Anglin, Matthew Heimbach and others, have also been cited as accused.
The nonprofit Integrity First for America supported the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs alleged that the night march, where some 300 white supremacists held lighted torches, was meant to evoke a fear similar to that of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi marches. At one point, white supremacists surrounded the counter-demonstrators and clashes took place. Some of the plaintiffs were present and say they were terrified for their lives.
Charlottesville residents have asked for $ 7-10 million in damages, while others involved have asked for $ 3-5 million.
The defendants tried to distance themselves from Fields in their testimony and said they only committed violence when they were attacked.
They also said their language on Internet forums and discussion boards is hyperbolic and protected by the First Amendment.
“The bravery of the plaintiffs and the horrific injuries that many of them suffered do not prove a conspiracy,” defense attorney James Kolenich said in closing argument. “They’ve proven to you that the Alt Right is the Alt Right. They’re racists. They’re anti-Semites. No kidding. You knew that when you walked in here.”
Spencer, who has represented himself, called the lawsuit a “weapon against free speech.”
Civil trials have a lower burden than criminal trials to prove their case. As a result, the plaintiffs did not need to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, but only by a “preponderance of evidence” – that this is more likely to be true than false.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs acknowledged that one of the goals of the trial was to diminish the ability of white supremacists to spread their message and influence by draining them financially.
“We know we can really bankrupt, disrupt and dismantle hate groups and their leaders through civil proceedings,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, told NPR in October.