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Emotions flare during contentious rally trial testimony

Jurors heard juxtaposing testimony as a rally car attack survivor took the stand after a neo-Confederate leader defended James Alex Fields Jr. during a Friday hearing.

The lengthy Sines v. Kessler federal trial has stretched over two weeks now, bringing more than a dozen key organizers of the Unite the Right rally back to Charlottesville and stirring emotions. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of nine area residents, accuses the organizers and their groups of conspiring to come to Charlottesville and commit acts on racist violence on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.

Defendant Michael Hill, who founded the League of the South in 1994, was the third defendant called as an adverse witness by the plaintiffs. The bulk of Friday’s hearing in Charlottesville’s federal courthouse revolved around his testimony and the League of the South’s involvement in the Unite the Right rally.

During Hill’s testimony, attorney Alan Levine brought up tweets and emails authored by Hill after Fields car attack. Fields, who is also a defendant, is currently serving 30 life sentences for driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.

In the email, which followed Fields’ 2018 first-degree murder conviction in Charlottesville Circuit Court, Hill wrote that “There is no justice for the white man in these damnable Jew-run courts.” Hill said this was a more general statement about the courts, than a condemnation of Charlottesville’s court but did not deny he had sent the email.

Levine followed up by asking Hill to verify a tweet Hill wrote that said “James Fields did nothing wrong,” and another that said he “wouldn’t change a thing about Charlottesville 2.0,” a.k.a. the Unite the Right rally. Hill confirmed that he had typed both statements.

Levine and Hill often clashed during testimony, with Hill’s counsel accusing Levine of being argumentative.

During a tedious portion of testimony, Levine showed Hill a video of Hill and co-defendant Michael Tubbs leading a group of League of the South members down Market Street toward what was then known as Emancipation Park. Levine had to show the video to Hill several times before Hill would confirm that he and Tubbs did not stop walking when they ran into several counter-protesters.

Levine also showed Hill a video in which three League of the South members knocked a woman down and sprayed her face with mace.

“The woman didn’t have any kind of weapon in her hands, is that right?” Levine said, prompting a response of uncertainty from Hill. “In fact, the woman was walking out and away when one of the League members pulled her, turned her around and pulled her to the ground, isn’t that right?”

During his testimony Hill repeatedly pushed back against claims that the shields brought by League members were intended for offense, arguing that they were instead “used to push through the crowds and protect our people.”

Hill’s testimony also revealed more of the breakdown in relationships between the rally attendees and key organizer Jason Kessler in the weeks leading up to the rallies. According to Hill, he did not follow Kessler’s plan for entry into the park and did not consider himself an adherent to anything Kessler had dictated for the rally.

Though Hill maintains that the Aug. 11, 2017 torch march on University of Virginia Grounds was not something the League supported, Levine asked him about several statements seemingly of support he gave after the event.

“Oh no, I never disavowed it,” Hill said. “It was very impressive looking on video, yes sir it was. I praised the optics of it and said it looked very good and we might even want to do one in the future.”

In what may be a preview of defense arguments to come, at several points Hill would contend that the car attack happened after the rally, prompting Levine to clarify that the rally “never actually happened.” Hill acknowledged that an unlawful assembly had been declared prior to when the UTR speakers were set to go on, but argued that events prior to the unlawful assembly were still part of the rally.

Hill’s testimony stood in stark contrast to the last witness called Friday, Thomas Baker, a plaintiff and survivor of the car attack. Baker, who was new to Charlottesville at the time of the rallies, said he came downtown on the day of the UTR rally to support his new community.

When Fields struck the crowd, Baker was thrown over the windshield, which he said felt “catastrophically violent.”

“The violence that your body absorbs, it’s impossible to describe, but it just doesn’t leave and you absorb the entirety of that impact,” he said. “I was so absolutely confident that I was going to die at that moment.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack Baker said he was so bruised and swollen that doctors at the ER were unable to tell whether any of his bones were broken. Baker suffered from a concussion, lacerations, a torn ligament in his left wrist and a torn labrum, or a cushioning ring of cartilage, on his right hip.

For weeks after the attack, Baker testified that his memory was foggy, a symptom of his severe concussion, but the worst and longer-lasting injury would be his hip. A generally active person with a passion for running and the outdoors, Baker said he has been unable to resume his level of activity due to ongoing pain.

“Four years later and living with it everyday, it feels pretty normal most days but it can be severe after sitting for long periods of time standing for long periods of time — that long period being an hour or two,” he said. “It’s chronic and annoying is not the way to put it, but there’s no way to escape it.”

The plaintiffs are expected to continue presenting their case at 9 a.m. Monday.


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