Jurors ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs for four of the six claims in the trial of the “Unite the Right” rally organizers Tuesday, awarding more than $25 million in damages. The claims plaintiffs were granted damages for included conspiracy to commit violence, assault and battery, racial harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The verdict comes after four weeks of proceedings and two days of jury deliberation in a trial held more than four years after the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.
The case was brought by nine plaintiffs, including Class of 2019 School of Law alumna Elizabeth Sines and counterprotesters who were injured the night of Aug. 11, a minister who was assaulted and a Jewish woman who faced antisemitic slurs while counter-protesting.
The trial led plaintiffs and the Charlottesville community to relive the events of August 2017. On Aug. 11, several hundred white supremacists gathered with torches around the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the North side of the Rotunda, chanting “White Lives Matter'' and “Jews will not replace us,” where they were met by a group of counter protestors and violence broke out. The following day, a rally on the Downtown Mall turned violent when James Fields drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Claims which included conspiracy to commit racial violence were brought against 17 defendants, including Class of 2009 alumnus Jason Kessler and white nationalists Christopher Cantwell and Richard Spencer, a Class of 2001 alumnus. White supremacist organizations League of the South and Identity Evropa were also defendants.
The defense presented its evidence Nov. 16 starting with defendant Richard Spencer, who represented himself after being dropped by his previous lawyers.
During his testimony, Spencer — a white nationalist leader who conceived the term “alt-right” and spoke at the “Unite the Right” rally — repeated his argument that he was not involved with the march on Aug. 11 or the planning of the rally on Aug. 12. Spencer said he saw the rally as a way to promote himself and his career.
Cantwell, a white nationalist leader and podcaster who is also representing himself since his attorney dropped him, re-called Romero and Willis to the stand.
Cantwell replayed a video from Aug. 11 when protestors surrounded and began assaulting students and other counter-protesters circled around the Thomas Jefferson statue on the North side of the Rotunda. When Cantwell replayed the video, Romero confirmed that Cantwell was the person hitting counter-protestors in the video.
“Someone is starting to hit us, then another one,” Romero said, narrating what was happening in the video. “It looks like you were literally — is that you? Go back a frame.”
The court replayed the video a number of times, but Romero was unable to establish specifically whether one of the people Cantwell hit was her.
Plaintiffs’ closing statements
Closing statements took place Thursday. Plaintiffs were given two-and-a-half hours for closing arguments, while the defense had three-and-a-half hours. One of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Roberta Kaplan, spoke to the jury ahead of deliberation.
“It will be up to the 12 of you, and the 12 of you alone, to hold these defendants accountable for the harm that they have done,” Kaplan said.
Karen Dunn — another lawyer for the plaintiffs — said defendants all acted with racial animus or racially-based hatred, and said all defendants were involved in the alleged conspiracy even if they themselves did not commit violence during the rally.
“Mr. Spencer spent so much time trying to convince you he has just nothing to do with this,” Dunn said. “But is it any surprise that somebody who viewed themselves as a celebrity would deputize other people like Eli Kline to do the dirty work?”
The plaintiffs argued that Fields considered himself a part of a group including other defendants which when he attended the rally and drove through protesters. This group discussed and advocated racially-motivated violence, which would mean his actions were the result of a conspiracy according to the plaintiffs.
“He considered himself as part of the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ of the battle of Charlottesville,” Dunn said.
Kaplan discussed the effects of Aug. 11 and 12 on the plaintiffs’ mental health, physical health, relationships and financial stability. Every plaintiff has post-traumatic stress disorder from that day, Kaplan said.
“What would it take to make sure that the defendants and their co-conspirators never, ever do anything like this ever again?” Kaplan said.
Defendants’ closing statements
The defendants then gave closing statements. Defense lawyer James Kolenich told the jury that although the plaintiffs suffered horrific injuries, this did not prove that defendants conspired before the rally to commit violence.
“Pay attention and realize you have jobs to do as jurors,” Kolenich said. “The bravery of the plaintiffs and the horrific injuries that many of them suffered don’t prove a conspiracy.”
Meanwhile, Cantwell used his closing statement to argue that the violence he committed was not motivated by racial animus — although he did commit violence at the rally, Cantwell argued that it was not racially-motivated, nor was it part of a conspiracy.
“Who did you see me fighting?” Cantwell asked. “Not Devin Willis. Not Natalie Romero. Not Elizabeth Sines. You saw me pepper spray a white man. You saw me punch a white man.”
Jury favors four of six claims
Jurors deliberated for three days and delivered the trial’s verdict Tuesday afternoon.
The jury was unable to come to a unanimous verdict on the first two federal conspiracy claims — whether the defendants conspired to commit racially-motivated violence and whether any defendants knew of a conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence.
The third claim alleged that all 17 defendants conspired to commit violence Aug. 11 and 12. Each of the nine plaintiffs was awarded one dollar in compensatory damages under this claim, except Sines and plaintiff Seth Wispelwey, who were awarded nothing.
The 10 individual defendants will pay $500,000 each to the plaintiffs. Vanguard, League of the South, Identity Evrope, Traditionalist Worker Party and the National Socialist Movement — all white supremacist organizations who were defendants in this case — will pay $1 million in punitive damages each. The punitive damages total $10 million.
Compensatory damages are given to injured victims to help pay for medical expenses and other damages created, while punitive damages are meant to penalize the defendants.
Plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis were awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages each under claim four, under which defendants Spencer, Kessler, Cantwell, white supremacist Elliott Kline and podcaster Rober “Azzmador” Ray were accused of racial harassment. Romero and Willis were both injured Aug. 12.
Spencer, Kessler, Kline, Ray and Cantwell were also assessed $200,000 each in punitive damages, which Romero and Willis will split.
Under claim five, six plaintiffs were awarded both compensatory and punitive damages for assault and battery claims leveled against Fields. Fields will pay $6 million in punitive damages, to be split evenly between the six plaintiffs.
The final claim — intentional infliction of emotional distress — was leveled by seven plaintiffs against Fields. The jury again decided on a total of $6 million in punitive damages.
Additionally, in the last two claims, Romero was awarded a total of $373,430 in compensatory damages, plaintiff April Muniz was awarded $158,000, plaintiff Thomas Baker was awarded $565,332, Sines was awarded $50,000, plaintiff Marissa Blair was awarded $102,000 and plaintiff Marcus Martin was awarded $255,974.
The jury was ultimately unable to conclude whether there was a conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence or whether defendants knew of a conspiracy to commit racially-motivated violence. Still, more than $25 million in damages awarded to the plaintiffs signals a step towards justice for the victims of the “Unite the Right” rally, four years later.
In a joint statement, many local anti-racist groups — including Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, Indivisible Charlottesville and Charlottesville Beyond Policing, among others — reaffirmed their support for the plaintiffs and emphasized the importance of continuing anti-racist work.
“While the focus has been on the court system and this trial, we emphasize that any victories we’ve earned over white supremacy have been because regular everyday people were willing to get in the streets and confront white supremacy,” the statement reads. “Disruption works. Protest works.”