The civil lawsuit against the murderous white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Ended in a split verdict on Tuesday, with jurors failing to agree on a federal conspiracy charge but awarding more of $ 25 million to the plaintiffs in combined damages.
After a third day of deliberation, the decision of the seven white and four black jurors showed jurors agreed that the defendants had violated a Virginia state conspiracy law, but not a federal law. . The ruling rejected defense arguments that the trial represented a referendum on free speech.
Jurors assessed $ 500,000 in punitive damages against several defendants and $ 1 million against several organizations in connection with the conspiracy complaint against the state. However, they limited the compensatory damages to the plaintiffs on this claim to a maximum of $ 1 each.
The jury found that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had proven an allegation of racial or religious violence under Virginia law. The panel awarded two plaintiffs $ 250,000 each in compensatory damages and $ 200,000 each in punitive damages, to be paid by several defendants.
The jury also ordered $ 12 million in punitive damages against James Alex Fields, who drove a car into the Charlottesville mob, killing Heather Heyer. He had previously been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The case represented the latest in a decades-old strategy of using civil lawsuits to hamper hate groups by attacking their finances. Despite the size of the jury’s prizes, it was not clear whether the defendants would be able to pay.
The decision came after jurors sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon on Monday morning saying they had not been able to come to unanimous decisions on whether the plaintiffs had proven the first three of the six claims by a preponderance of evidence. These included allegations that the defendants had conspired to commit racist violence, were aware of a conspiracy and failed to stop it, and were part of a civil conspiracy under the Virginia law.
“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hatred will not go unanswered. There will be responsibilities,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, an organization that organized the civil trial.
The case focused on two days in August, four years ago, when hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Clean white men marched with lit tiki torches and chanted, “The Jews will not replace us. Fighting broke out between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators.
The groundbreaking lawsuit was filed shortly after the rally by residents of Charlottesville who said they were physically or mentally injured by the violence. Nine complainants, including a minister, students and other residents of Charlottesville, sued 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. Among them are Richard Spencer, former leader of the white supremacist and nationalist movement called “alt-right,” Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster who is serving time in prison for extortion, and white nationalist Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the gathering.
Also accused was Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who founded the Evropa Identity Group.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the evidence showed the defendants planned the rally knowing that violence would ensue.
The defendants, 24 individuals and organizations, admitted to espousing racist and anti-Semitic views but denied having conspired.
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Proving a conspiracy
The plaintiffs took the case to court under the federal Ku Klux Klan Act, a reconstruction-era law that allows individuals to sue when violent plots 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 racist violence which caused these injuries.
To do this, they relied on a wealth of evidence, including hundreds of text messages between the defendants and hundreds of thousands of communications leaks from Discord, a messaging platform used by many organizers before the event.
Throughout the trial, the defendants made no apologies for their racist beliefs. Some have used the courtroom as a stage to praise the infamous Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or to mock the Holocaust. At one point during oral argument, a defense lawyer played a neo-Nazi recruiting video.
The defendants sought to disassociate themselves from the central planning of the event and argued that they never intended for the rally to turn violent. In his instructions to jurors regarding the conspiracy allegation, Moon said they only had to agree that a preponderance of evidence showed “that there was a mutual understanding, verbal or tacit, between the conspirators to commit the crime. less an illegal act “.
Spencer expressed regret for the events and for Heyer’s death. He and Cantwell tried to present the lawsuit as a referendum on First Amendment rights. Moon, who presided over the trial for more than three weeks, cut off those arguments and urged the defendants to stick to the facts of the case.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs produced evidence designed to show the defendants conspired to plan the rally, knew it would escalate into violence, and celebrated when it did.
Lawyers showed videos of the defendants discussing the smooth running of the rally. Other evidence included communications and social media posts from the defendants talking about the equipment they would be bringing to Charlottesville and that they could injure anyone who came forward to oppose them.
“We are raising an army my lord, for free speech, but to break skulls if necessary,” read one of the texts between the 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 for the bleeding garbage we sent to the morgue and to hospitals how insignificant we are.
During cross-examination, Bloch asked Cantwell, “When you said ‘bleeding garbage we sent to the morgue’, did you mean Heather Heyer? “
“Yeah,” Cantwell replied.
A legal tactic to stop extremists
The lawsuit follows a successful decades-long tradition of using civil courts to decimate white supremacist and hate groups. Spencer said ahead of the trial that the case had been financially crippling.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued several sections of the Klan on behalf of plaintiffs who had been intimidated or threatened. The lawsuits resulted in the bankruptcy or closure of these chapters.
The plaintiffs have already obtained default judgments against seven of the 24 defendants.
The court imposed five-figure fines on three other defendants for failing to produce evidence or not appearing at hearings or depositions, according to court records.