More than a dozen white supremacists figures and groups conspired to come to Charlottesville and commit racially motivated violence, affirmed a jury Tuesday, ordering the rally lawsuit defendants to pay more than $26 million in damages.
The verdict wrapped a nearly month-long trial and years-long lawsuit for the time being, but it left the case open due to a jury deadlock on two key federal conspiracy claims. Following the decision, the plaintiffs and some defendants declared victory.
For three days, the 11-person jury mulled over a litany of claims in the federal civil conspiracy lawsuit, ceding to a deadlock after being unable to reach a unanimous decision on two key federal conspiracy counts. The two federal counts stemmed from the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, passed in the wake of the Civil War as a means of combating the KKK’s influence. The jury did, however, find that evidence supported a state law finding of conspiracy against the defendants.
Though the trial may have wrapped for now, it appears likely that the legal battle is far from over.
Plaintiffs’ counsel Roberta Kaplan told the press outside the courthouse that, despite the mixed verdict, she considered it a victory and said the jury’s ruling sent a strong message. Although the first two counts were deadlocked, Kaplan and her legal associates said that racial motivation was part of the state conspiracy claim as well.
“This verdict sends a clear message that this country does not tolerate racist and anti-Semitic violence and it will not go unanswered” she said.
Kaplan and her co-counsel Karen Dunn said they plan to re-file and re-try the deadlocked claims and are confident that a new jury will rule in favor of the plaintiffs. The finding of liability on the state conspiracy count in particular shows that the jury believed there was evidence a conspiracy, the pair said.
“I also think that the finding against each and every defendant, including James Fields, and the findings of such significant figures on the damages is auspicious for the future,” said Dunn.
Despite the deadlock, the jury did find that, per Virginia law, all the individual and corporate defendants had conspired. It ordered them to pay $1 in compensatory damages to each of the nine plaintiffs, save Elizabeth Sines and Seth Wispelwey. Additionally, the jury ordered the individual defendants to pay $500,000 in punitive damages and each corporate defendant to pay $1 million.
Defendants Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, Elliott Kline, Robert “Azzmador” Ray and Chris Cantwell were ordered to pay an additional $200,000 each for racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence committed against plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis.
In total, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs on four of the six counts and ordered financial punishments and compensation totaling around $26 million. The bulk of the financial damages resulted from defendant James Alex Fields Jr., who was ordered to pay more than $13 million in both compensatory and punitive damages. Fields, who was convicted of murder and dozens of hate crimes after he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, already faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines resulting from his state and federal criminal trials.
The lawsuit was filed in October 2017 just two months after the deadly Unite the Right rally and preceding University of Virginia torch march that saw Charlottesville flooded with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The Aug. 12 rally ultimately ended in bloodshed and terror as defendant Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.
The complaint was a bid to hold organizers and key participants responsible for the violence of the weekend, according to previous statements from the civil rights group, Integrity First For America.
In a joint statement, the plaintiffs celebrated the jury’s verdict, which they said finally held defendants like Kessler, Spencer and Cantwell accountable for their actions.
“Our single greatest hope is that today’s verdict will encourage others to feel safer raising our collective voices in the future to speak up for human dignity and against white supremacy,” the statement reads.
The bulk of the four-week trial centered on the plaintiffs’ case, with each of the nine plaintiffs taking the stand to share their harrowing experiences in August 2017. Despite the often emotional testimony, the defendants pressed the plaintiffs hard during cross-examination, with some of the defendants attempting to introduce arguments about free speech.
Over the course of the trial, most of the defendants were called to the stand and shown comments they made in online channels centered on organizing the Unite the Right rally. Some of these communications included calls to violence and apparent endorsements of vehicular attacks on protesters.
“As you’ve heard, Kessler built an army for that battle, complete with organizers, group leaders and promoters who would bring hundreds of followers who were armed, and foot soldiers who would carry out the mission,” Dunn said during closing arguments. “They all shared a common, unlawful purpose, as required by the instructions, to cause racially motivated violence at the ‘Battle of Charlottesville.’”
Because the lawsuit was civil, the jury did not need to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard in criminal cases. Instead, the jury was instructed by the Charlottesville federal court that they needed to determine liability based on the “preponderance of the evidence,” which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon likened to 51% or more.
After the verdict Tuesday, Josh Smith, attorney for Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the Traditionalist Worker Party, told members of the press that he also considered the verdict a victory.
Smith, who openly holds anti-Semitic views similar to those of his clients, was heckled by protesters as he left the courthouse, who called him a “Holocaust denier” and told him to leave town. Smith rolled his eyes but declined to deny the accusations.
Smith argued that, per his interpretation of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, if punitive damages exceed compensatory damages then a defendant is not required to pay more than ten times the compensatory damage figure. According to Smith, he intends to argue that this means his clients only owe $11 to each plaintiff.
“I consider it a huge defeat [for the plaintiffs] who lost to some pro se defendants and solo practitioners,” he said. “I think they underestimated their opponents.”
Smith’s client Parrott shared a very different view with Buzzfeed News, telling the outlet that the verdict set “disappointing precedent for our civil liberties,” and that “the jurors have given us a middle finger.”
James Kolenich, attorney for Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Identity Evropa, appeared less confident that his clients would not have to pay punitive damages and said the plaintiffs should already be able to begin all the ordinary collection practices.
“Some of the organizations likely have some assets, but I don’t think that any of them could afford to pay out of pocket these damages,” he said.
Kolenich said he expected the damages to be larger if the jury ruled on behalf of plaintiffs. He declined to share how his clients felt about the ruling.
In response to the verdict, a joint statement on behalf of nearly a dozen Charlottesville area activist groups condemned white supremacy and affirmed their support for the plaintiffs. The statement also urges the community to support racial justice reforms, including housing justice and advocating for immigrant rights.
“While the focus has been on the court system and this trial, we emphasize that any victories we’ve earned over white supremacy have been because regular everyday people were willing to get in the streets and confront white supremacy,” the statements reads. “Disruption works. Protest works. Our racist confederate statues are finally gone.”