The final witnesses testified Wednesday in the civil case involving White nationalists who organized a two-day rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 that saw one person killed and others injured in the chaos that ensued.
The violence — which surrounded the Unite the Right rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — reached a crescendo when James Fields, who was protesting the statue’s removal, drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Four witnesses testified Wednesday, including two who were recalled to the stand, before US District Judge Norman K. Moon began explaining the complex instructions to the jury.
Judgments against each defendant could vary from defendant to defendant. The jury just needs to find that there’s a “preponderance of evidence,” which means a 51% or greater chance, for them to be held liable, Moon told jurors.
Fourteen people and 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations are named in the lawsuit that prompted the trial. Organizers of the rally are accused of engaging in a conspiracy to commit violence. The plaintiffs, who include town residents and counterprotesters injured in clashes, are seeking “compensatory and statutory” damages for physical and emotional injuries they suffered.
The almost three-week trial featured attorneys for victims of the violence putting together puzzle pieces for jurors and arguing that the defendants acted as an interconnected web, meant to goad counterprotesters into violent battles.
The defense notably displayed less cohesion than the plaintiffs’ side, oftentimes shifting the blame for the violence, arguing they didn’t like each other, taking snipes at one another and alleging they barely knew each other.
They have said they did not initiate the deadly violence that ensued and argued they were exercising their First Amendment right to protest. They also say there was no conspiracy and the violence stemmed from law enforcement’s failure to keep the opposing groups separated.
The defense is headlined by two well-known White nationalists who took the stand on Tuesday: the self-proclaimed most well-known leader of the alt-right as of 2017, Richard Spencer, and shock jock and personality Christopher Cantwell, both of whom are defending themselves.
Spencer testified that he not only wasn’t involved in any of the planning for the deadly rally, but that he also was concerned about potential violence and wanted to make sure he kept the peace.
“If I was there it would definitely attract Antifa. This would make the rally something different and that concerned me,” Spencer said, adding that he was more interested in the fame and notoriety of being the most recognizable leader of the alt-right, not the organizer of a violent confrontation allegedly aimed at being the start of a race war.
Cantwell gave jurors examples of where he warned others not to engage in violence.
He told listeners of his program, the “Radical Agenda,” that they were not to bring the level of violence he talks about on his show to Charlottesville. He said his show is for entertainment purposes and told listeners to leave their guns at home.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday and the jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday.
The events surrounding August 11-12, 2017, saw White nationalists and supremacists marching through Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a phrase evoking Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity.
The 2017 rally turned the city into another battleground in America’s culture wars and highlighted growing polarization. It was also an event that empowered White supremacists and nationalists to demonstrate their beliefs in public rather than just in online chatrooms.
Some of the defendants — including Cantwell — have faced criminal charges related to their activities. In 2018, he pleaded guilty to assault and battery in connection to his use of pepper spray during the rally.
Fields is serving two concurrent life sentences.
The statues of Lee and Confederate Lt. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson were taken down in July 2021.
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