White nationalists “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially-motivated violence that killed one counter-protester and injured dozens, lawyers for nine people hurt during the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville said this week, as they urged jurors to hold some of the country’s most infamous white supremacists accountable.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations on Friday in the trial of a civil lawsuit alleging that two dozen white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremacist organizations conspired to commit violence during two days of deadly demonstrations that rattled America’s conscience.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs showed the jury dozens of text messages, chat room exchanges and social media postings by the rally’s main planners, including some peppered with racial epithets and talk of “cracking skulls” of anti-far-right counter-protesters.
“We sued the people who were responsible – the leaders, the promoters, the group leaders, the people who brought the army, the people who were the most violent members of the army. Those are the people who we ask you to hold accountable today,” said attorney Karen Dunn.
Hundreds of emboldened white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in August 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. Americans watched in horror as white nationalists surrounded counter-protesters, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” and threw burning tiki torches at them during a night march on the University of Virginia campus.
There followed a day of horrific clashes around the park where the statue was located, before being removed in the summer of 2021.
Donald Trump, still in the early stages of his presidency, caused uproar by saying there were some “very fine people on both sides” of the protests.
Fields is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes for the car attack. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages and a judgment that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Roberta Kaplan – a lawyer for the plaintiffs famous for advancing same-sex marriage and reportedly counseling New York’s then governor Andrew Cuomo on sexual assault allegations against him – told jurors that if they find the defendants liable for the violence, it is up to them how much to award in damages.
She suggested a range of $7m to $10m for each of the four plaintiffs who were injured in the car attack and $3m to $5m for plaintiffs physically harmed in street clashes or emotionally injured by witnessing the violence. Kaplan did not suggest a specific range for punitive damages.
The lawsuit is being funded by Integrity First for America, a non-profit civil rights organization, and is part of a legal offensive to weaken the far right.
“The bottom line is all of these traditional legal theories are tools to make people answer for their conduct, bring them out of the shadows, expose them for what they are and ultimately show they have less power than they think,” David Dinielli, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), previously told the Guardian.
Some defendants in the case used their closing arguments to distance themselves from Fields.
While conceding that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have shown the defendants said “ridiculous” and “offensive” things, the defense has argued that their clients’ use of racial epithets and that their blustery talk in chat rooms before the rally is protected by the first amendment.
“They’re racists, they’re anti-Semites. No kidding. You knew that when you walked in here,” said attorney James Kolenich, who represents Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally.
“What does that do to prove a conspiracy?”
Kolenich said that when the defendants talked about violence before the rally, they were referring to fistfights, pushing and shoving, not plowing into a crowd with a car.
“None of these defendants could have foreseen what James Fields did,” Kolenich said.
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right” and represented himself at trial, told the jury he had no role in planning the events and did not commit acts of violence. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have portrayed Spencer as the leader of the torch rally.
“The last thing in the world that I wanted by agreeing to speak at Unite the Right was an event that became a catastrophe, that involved the tragic death of a young woman, that involved the injuries to the plaintiffs and that will forever remain a stain on the cause that I sincerely believe in,” Spencer said.
He also reminded the jury about controversial comments Trump made after the rally, when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists and said there were “very fine people on both sides”. That drew a warning from Judge Norman Moon, who said Trump’s remarks were not evidence in the case and could not be used.
Spencer was warned again by the judge when he began to talk about Jesus, whom he described as a radical who was executed for his views.
The white nationalist turned again to the jury.
“Your task – and it’s a difficult one – is to apply the law fairly and precisely,” he said. “Even to those who you might despise.”