Charlottesville, Va. , A jury on Tuesday ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages for violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
After nearly a month of civil trials, a jury in the U.S. District Court struck down two major claims, but found the white nationalists liable on four other claims in a lawsuit filed by nine people who had suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations. had to face.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan said plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to reschedule the trial so that a new jury can decide the two impassable claims. She called the amount of damages awarded from other calculations “eye-opener”.
“It sends a loud message,” Kaplan said.
The verdict, though mixed, is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly in a federal trial for two dozen individuals and organizations accused of committing violence against African Americans, Jews and others in a carefully planned conspiracy.
FILE – People gather at Heather Heyer’s memorial after her funeral service on Wednesday, August 116, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to appeal, saying “the whole principle of that decision is fundamentally flawed.”
He said the plaintiffs’ lawyers had made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and the other defendants.
“It was activism through lawsuits, and it’s absolutely outrageous,” he said. “I’m doing fine now because I accepted in my heart that the worst could happen. I had hope, sure, but I’m not too surprised or disappointed.”
Juries were unable to reach a unanimous decision on two important claims based on a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to free slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. There is a rarely used provision in the Ku Klux Klan Act that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.
Under those claims, the plaintiffs asked the jury to ascertain that the defendants were involved in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and that they were aware of the conspiracy but failed to prevent it. The jurors could not agree on those claims.
The jury found the defendants liable under the Virginia state law conspiracy claim and awarded $11 million in damages to the plaintiffs under that claim. Juries found five of the main organizers of the rally liable under a claim alleging that they subjected two plaintiffs to threats, harassment or violence that was motivated by racial, religious or ethnic enmity. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $1.5 million in damages on that claim.
The last two claims were made against James Alex Fields Jr., a Hitler fan who intentionally drove his car into a crowd of defendants, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The jury found Fields, who is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes, liable for assault or battery claims and awarded less than $6.8 million in damages to the six plaintiffs. The jury awarded the same plaintiffs approximately $6.7 million on the claim that Fields intentionally caused emotional distress on her.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Broe, said the verdict “sends a very clear message that putting hate speech into action has consequences.”
“The defendants were convicted with their own words, which shows that months of planning went into the rally. It was not a spontaneous event,” said Broe, who was not a plaintiff at trial.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally, apparently to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists shouting “Jews will not take our place” surrounded the protestors and threw torches at them.
Then-President Donald Trump touched a political firearm when he failed to immediately condemn white nationalists, saying that ” Very nice people on both sides. ,
The lawsuit, funded by Integrity First for America, a non-profit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville, accused some of the nation’s most famous white nationalists of plotting violence, including the rally’s main organizer Jason Kessler. ; Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely associated band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as a “crying Nazi” for posting a tearful video leading to his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counter-protesters. Warrant was issued.
Defendants Matthew Hembach, Matthew Parrot and Joshua Smith, a lawyer for the far-right Traditionalist Workers Party, said they would ask the court to reduce the punitive damages against their clients. But he described the verdict as a “big win” for his clients because of the relatively modest amount of compensation awarded by the jury.
test featured emotional testimony From people killed by Fields’ car or who witnessed the attacks as well as plaintiffs who were beaten up or subjected to racist taunts.
Melissa Blair, who was driven out of the way by a crowd of Fields’ car, described the horror of seeing her fiancée bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend Heyer had been killed.
Blair said, “I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about everyone who was there. It was an absolute terrorist scene. It was blood everywhere. I was scared,” said Blair, who shared her story. She became teary-eyed during the testimony.
During their testimony, some of the defendants used racist adjectives and expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as Antifa for the violence that broke out that weekend.
In closing the arguments of the jury, defendants and their lawyers tried to distance Fields and that the plaintiffs have not proved that they had conspired to cause violence at the rally.
Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against the other seven defendants who declined to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.
AP reporter Mike Kunzelman contributed from College Park, Maryland. AP reporter Sarah Rankin contributed from Richmond.
This story has been corrected to show that total damages exceeded $26 million.