CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — White nationalists “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially motivated violence that killed one counterprotester and injured dozens, lawyers for nine people hurt during the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville said Thursday as they urged jurors to hold some of the country’s most well-known white supremacists accountable.
Their closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville came in the trial of a civil lawsuit alleging that two dozen white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremist organizations conspired to commit violence during two days of demonstrations.
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-racist counterprotesters.
“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 white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists surrounded counterprotesters, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” and threw burning tiki torches at them. The next day, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler rammed his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring others.
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, 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.
Other defendants used their closing arguments to distance themselves from Fields. Their attorneys told jurors that injuries suffered by the plaintiffs do not prove that the defendants entered into a conspiracy to commit violence.
Attorney James Kolenich, who represents Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally, and two other defendants, said the plaintiffs’ lawyers have shown the defendants said “ridiculous” and “offensive” things, but have not proven a conspiracy.
“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,” Kolenich said.
“What does that do to prove a conspiracy?” he said.
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.
Spencer also reminded the jury about controversial comments then-President Donald 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, describing him as a radical who was executed for his views.
Spencer turned again to the jury: “Your task — and it’s a difficult one — is to apply the law fairly and precisely, even to those who you might despise.”
Lawyers for the defendants have argued there was no conspiracy, and their use of racial epithets and that their blustery talk in chat rooms before the rally is protected by the First Amendment. Several defendants have testified that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked. They’ve blamed the violence on anti-fascist protesters known as antifa, and also each other.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday.
Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, 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 $7 million to $10 million for each of the four plaintiffs who were injured in the car attack and $3 million to $5 million for plaintiffs physically harmed in street clashes or emotional 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 nonprofit civil rights organization.