After a civil trial, a federal jury in Virginia ordered organizers of the ill-fated “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville to pay 9 plaintiffs more than $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional injuries.
The case in Sines v. Kessler, civil action 3:17-cv-72, was heard in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
The rally in question took place in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. The event attracted neo-Nazis, but many non-Nazis attended to protest a proposal to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a nearby park. The plaintiffs claimed that a nighttime tiki torch march was intended to frighten and intimidate the plaintiffs and others.
The rally gained national and international attention after then-President Donald Trump was falsely accused of praising the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who attended the rally.
Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden repeated the falsehood in 2019 when he announced he was running for president. Biden also praised the violent leftists of Antifa who attended for having “the courage to stand” against racially motivated hate.
In fact Trump had previously said after the rally, “I think there is blame on both sides” and that “many sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right,’ do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump said. “What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”
He added at the time: “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.”
Trump also said there had been some “very bad people” on both sides in Charlottesville but that some preservationists and history buffs who were protesting the removal of the Lee statue were “fine people.”
Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, died after neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, a defendant in this lawsuit now serving time for murder, ran her over with a car. Antifa and related groups showed up armed with baseball bats and clubs and fought with other attendees.
Following 3 days of deliberations, jurors failed to reach a verdict on two separate federal conspiracy allegations related to whether organizers conspired to commit racially motivated violence or whether they knew about such a thing but failed to take action to prevent it.
The most prominent of the individual defendants were Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell, as well as other neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Several fringe groups—League of the South, Vanguard America, National Socialist Movement, Identity Evropa, and the Traditionalist Worker Party—were also defendants in the case.
Spencer, who served as his own attorney, said the trial was a “weapon against free speech.”
The plaintiffs, who were residents or former residents of Charlottesville, filed suit against the activists and organizations, claiming that the organizers and rally participants had conspired to carry out acts of violence and violated their right to be free from race-based violence.
“We are thrilled that the jury has delivered a verdict in favor of our plaintiffs, finally giving them the justice they deserve after the horrific weekend of violence and intimidation in August 2017,” plaintiffs’ attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn told reporters in a statement.
“Today’s verdict sends a loud and clear message that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of … this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens.”
During the trial, the defendants said any violent acts they committed were self-defense and that the seemingly provocative language they used in internet forums was hyperbole and protected by the First Amendment.
“The bravery of the plaintiffs and the horrific injuries that many of them suffered don’t prove a conspiracy,” defense attorney James Kolenich reportedly said in his closing argument.
“They’ve proven to you that the alt-right is the alt-right. They’re racist. They’re anti-Semites. No kidding. You knew that when you walked in here.”