A federal judge is considering moving the venue of a major Unite the Right rally lawsuit outside of Charlottesville due to potential logistical and safety issues.
Filed on behalf of various area residents soon after the 2017 rally, Sines v. Kessler targets key organizers and participants of the deadly event.
The case has moved slowly through the federal court system over the past four years, inhibited partially by the sheer number of defendants and a lack of cooperation from some of them and then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, with less than five months until the trial’s scheduled Oct. 25 start date, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a telephonic hearing Friday to discuss logistics of the trial. Citing a swath of potential challenges, Moon floated the idea of moving the venue.
“The number of bodies and the lawyers in this case raises a significant logistical concern of how to make sure both sides are represented at trial, given space limitations even in a big courtroom such as in Charlottesville,” Moon said. “Space limitations would be a concern regardless, but I expect we could continue to see risks from COVID-19 in October.”
The small size of the jury box, the narrow hallways and the need to get jurors and everyone up and down the stairs and elevators to the courtroom would take a good deal of time that would need to be built into the trial schedule, Moon said. Given these concerns, he suggested potentially moving the venue to the federal courthouse in either Roanoke or Lynchburg.
Roberta Kaplan, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, sought to assuage some of these concerns by offering some of her team’s plans. Kaplan said they were willing to limit the number of plaintiffs and attorneys in the courtroom to one or two at a time. Additionally, Kaplan said the plaintiffs are open to viewing the trial proceedings via video links at other locations, such as other rooms in the courthouse.
Kaplan also cited concerns of an adverse financial impact if the case is moved from Charlottesville.
“Just practically speaking, the not-for-profit that has been funding the out-of-pocket expenses on this case has already put a very large deposit down on hotel spaces in Charlottesville and I’m told that they stand to lose somewhere in the range of $100,000 if the trial gets moved,” Kaplan said.
Several of the defendants or their attorneys expressed concerns about keeping the trial in Charlottesville, with most of those concerns centering around safety issues.
Defendant Richard Spencer said he is in favor of moving the trial to Lynchburg and implied that the amount of money the plaintiffs had spent on hotel rooms indicated they expected the trial to be some type of spectacle, which would cause security issues.
“I have been attacked by activists and so that is a concern to me,” he said. “I think your instincts are sound and I think we should be trying to lower the temperature and remove any kind of public spectacle aspect to this and just stick to the facts.”
Defendant Matthew Heimbach, formerly of the Traditionalist Worker Party, echoed Spencer’s security concerns and also said that a month-long trial would hurt his family, as he would be unable to work.
Following input from the defendants, Kaplan said the plaintiffs now expect the trial may not take a whole month and could be reduced to two weeks, given the court’s order allowing adverse inference jury instruction for some defendants. Additionally, Kaplan said the plaintiffs do not have an issue with some of their witnesses and the defendants participating remotely.
However, Kaplan appeared to draw the ire of Moon when she raised issues with the defendants’ change of venue arguments by pointing out a lack of similar concern during the Unite the Right rally.
“When the defendants came to Charlottesville, after weeks of organization and planning in August 2017, they weren’t worried about security,” Kaplan said before Moon briefly cut her off. “My point is that they could do this to Charlottesville, terrorize the town that way, and now they say that they’re worried about the expense and security when they did this to Charlottesville themselves back in August 2017.”
Moon again cut Kaplan off, calling her provocative and pointing out the difficult situation her argument would cause for the plaintiffs at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals if he incorporated that reasoning into his order.
Forcing rally participants to return to the area also could draw in people the court has no control over, Moon said. Kaplan countered this argument by pointing out that the trial location will never be secret and that people would likely travel regardless of where it is held.
Heimbach again said he was concerned about his safety before going on to accuse the plaintiffs of deliberately drawing the defendants back to Charlottesville in order to “create a spectacle,” before he was also cut off by Moon.
“Based upon the bias of the plaintiffs, it seems they’re very passionate and like they’re trying to set it up, by having us in Charlottesville, to be a hanging court,” Heimbach said. “They are going in from day one to try and specifically not prove their allegations, but to try and create a spectacle for affiliated media companies to be able to put us potentially in danger and to try and drag us in some sort of ritualistic manner back to Charlottesville.”
Moon ended the hearing by urging the parties to confer before the next hearing and to file any submissions about the venue within the next seven days. It remains unclear when the court will decide whether the venue will change or not.