Emotional testimony and a harrowing story of survival marked the first day of witness testimony as two plaintiffs took the stand during Friday in the Sines v. Kessler trial.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers formally begin calling witnesses, the first of which was Natalie Romero, a UVa student at the time of the rallies and survivor of James Alex Fields’ car attack that killed Heather Heyer. Though Romero survived the attack, she said she continues to feel the effects of her injuries years later.
Romero occasionally choked up as she was forced to relive the traumatic weekend and describe to the jury the injuries she sustained. Romero said she suffered a skull fracture during the attack which left her bleeding on the ground. As she fought to remain conscious — a lesson she said she learned from prior ROTC training — she said all she remembered was darkness and wanting to call her mother.
“I wanted to lay down, but I knew if I laid down I might fall asleep and if I fell asleep I might not wake up,” she said.
Romero’s testimony Friday came at the end of the first week of a civil lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The lawsuit, filed four years ago on behalf of nine Charlottesville area residents in the wake of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally and preceding University of Virginia torch march, alleges that key organizers and participants conspired to come to the city and commit acts of racist violence.
The rally attracted global attention for its violence which ended with the vehicular attack by Fields Jr., leaving left dozens injured and Heyer dead.
After years of delays, the multi-week trial began Monday, bringing more than a dozen organizers or their legal representatives back to Charlottesville.
The jury was presented with several images depicting Romero in the wake of the assault, blood covering her face as strangers attempted to clean her off. Her face was so covered in blood that her own mother couldn’t identify her from the images at first, Romero said, only being able to do so after recognizing her daughter’s ROTC watch.
With some assistance from two people she knew, a confused and injured Romero was brought to an ambulance parked near the scene of the attack and transferred to UVa Medical Center.
“When I got to the hospital, I asked the nurse that was there what happened to me and they said that I was hit by a car,” she said. “I asked them, ‘Am I going to be able to walk? Do you know if I have a spinal injury?’ and no one answered me, they just stared at me. No one could say yes or no, so I just cried.”
Romero spent two days in the hospital before being discharged. However, the pain didn’t end there, and she needed to use a wheelchair for weeks and was unable to sleep in a regular bed. Even to this day she said she experiences injury-related headaches that are exacerbated by bright lights, including the ones in the courtroom Friday.
Though the worst of her injuries were sustained on Aug. 12, 2017, Romero was also present for the Aug. 11, 2017 torch rally, in which dozens of white supremacists surrounded counter protesters at a Thomas Jefferson statue on UVa grounds.
With a hesitant voice, Romero described the feeling of being surrounded by angry, white men who wielded torches and shouted slurs and hateful comments at her and others.
“I wanted to escape, to run away, but there was literally no way I could do that,” she said. “I tried to keep my head down. I felt like a mouse trapped — like I was in a Salem Witch trial-type situation about to be burned at the stake.”
She did eventually manage to escape, along with her friend and fellow plaintiff Devin Willis, but had been maced by the mob. Unaware that a shower would worsen the effects of the mace, she went home to cry and try to clean off.
With the hopes that the protesters at the Unite the Right rally would be less violent, Romero said she was not dissuaded from counter-protesting on Saturday.
“I wanted to be there to be with friends and students and people I care about,” she said of the Aug. 12 rally. “I wanted to be there for the community.”
As Romero described her harrowing ordeal at the hands of torch marchers, less than a mile away from the courthouse the Lincoln Project pulled a stunt that used imagery from the rally in an apparent attempt to criticize Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin during a campaign stop.
Dressed in the white shirts and khaki pants and wielding unlit tiki torches, five individuals posed in front of a Youngkin bus and claimed to be supporters, drawing widespread condemnation and raising questions about their suspicious appearances. After the stunt was widely decried as tasteless and both Youngkin and his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe denied involvement, the Lincoln Project released a statement that took credit but offered no apology.
Apparently unaware of the stunt, the Sines v. Kessler trial continued Friday, with Willis also taking the stand to describe his experiences the weekend of the rallies.
Willis detailed the night of the torch march, which saw him stand beside Romero, arms locked as they were sprayed with mace and subjected to slurs and taunts. Willis said he had encountered white supremacists before, at a Ku Klux Klan rally earlier that same year.
“It kind of burst my bubble about the times we are living in,” Willis said of the KKK rally. “It grossed me out that people like that, who hold those views, are still around sharing those views in public.”
Despite being shocked by what he heard at that rally, Willis said it was largely non-violent and he expected the UVa torch rally would be the same. As an advocate of peaceful protesting, he said he was horrified to be proven wrong.
Though Willis’ testimony was not finished Friday, Romero wrapped hers earlier in the day and was subjected to cross examination from the defendants and their counsel.
Most of the defendants or their attorneys focused their questions on whether Romero remembers seeing them or their clients at the rally. Romero always either responded that she did not see them or was not sure, attributing some of her uncertainty to the lingering effects of her head injury.
James Kolenich, counsel for Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Identity Evropa, asked Romero a series of questions related to whether she had prior knowledge of the rally plans and his clients’ role in them. This line of questioning was interrupted by Judge Norman K. Moon, who clarified this type of knowledge was not needed to file the lawsuit.
“The jury has to decide the case based on the evidence, the fact that she doesn’t know who all was involved in this thing when it happened or when she filed the lawsuit doesn’t matter,” he said. “She doesn’t personally have to know all the details to file; she knew she was hurt, she knew it caused her to struggle. She knew enough.”
Defendant Chris Cantwell, who is representing himself, spent a long time questioning Romero about details about the rally and asking if she knew the names of various people, the vast majority of whom were not parties in the lawsuit. Cantwell’s demeanor often came across as overly harsh, but he was not stopped by Moon.
At one point Cantwell asked Romero what her views were on fascism. The plaintiff responded that, as a queer Hispanic woman, she believed fascists hated her, pointing the the lengthy history of racist genocide by fascists.
Moon called the day to a close 20 minutes before 5 p.m. on Friday, ending trial for the week. Testimony will resume Monday at 9 a.m.
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