A 12-person jury has been seated in the Sines v. Kessler trial following days of contention and an allegation of an improper dismissal of a juror.
Filed in the wake of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally by nine Charlottesville area residents, the federal lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs were the victims of racist violence during the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the defendants engaged in a racist conspiracy that led to them terrorizing and harming residents of Charlottesville, violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and various other statutes. If found guilty, the defendants could face steep financial sanctions.
Following years of delays, the trial began Monday, bringing 14 people and 10 groups alleged to be key organizers and participants in the violent rallies back to Charlottesville. Many of the defendants are not physically present, either being represented by attorneys or having been already found guilty via default judgment.
But several key participants in the violence are, including Chris “The Crying Nazi” Cantwell, and Richard Spencer, who are representing themselves.
Following a long running trend of delays and legal complications, the two-day jury process stretched into three as the court had difficulty finding 12 jurors free of preconceived biases or able to sit for the entirety of the four week trial.
The process was additionally complicated by a Batson motion filed by the plaintiffs Monday that alleged the defendants used one of their peremptory strikes — which allows a party to remove a juror from the panel — improperly. A Batson motion is used when a party believes a juror was struck for a reason related to their race, ethnicity or sex.
On Wednesday, Karen Dunn, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, argued that the defense had struck a Black juror from the panel Monday based on his race alone.
When asked about their reasoning, the defendants pushed back against Dunn’s claim, with several citing the juror’s responses that they argued showed bias or claiming that the juror had exhibited untrustworthy speech.
Cantwell said he found the way the juror spoke to indicate deceit.
“I’m a professional talk radio host and so I talk and listen for a living, it’s what I do, and I detected deception in the man’s voice,” Cantwell said. “Him and the other juror that we struck answered certain questions as if they were answering a sarcastic question.”
Cantwell is serving time in an Illinois prison for a charge unrelated to the 2017 riot.
Richard Spencer, who is also representing himself, largely agreed with Cantwell and said the juror’s words were “too perfect and by the book,” and seemed like he was giving the answer he knew the court wanted rather than the truth.
Joshua Smith, attorney for Matthew Parrott, Matthew Heimbach and Traditionalist Worker Party, did not advance the tone argument alone Smith instead pointed to favorable views the juror had for Black Lives Matter and for the removal of Confederate monuments. Smith also said that there were Black jurors who had not been struck by the defense but argued that all of the plaintiffs’ strikes were against white people.
“It’s kind of offensive that plaintiffs are even bringing a Batson challenge because I don’t think they have clean hands here,” Smith said, alluding to the plaintiffs’ strikes.
Dunn took issue with the questionnaire reasoning, which she said was not a brought up when the strike was first challenged on Monday. Pointing to a comment from defense attorney James Kolenich, Dunn said the best the defense came up with at the time was that the juror had an “anti-defendant attitude” on his face during questioning.
“Kolenich said reasoning wasn’t ‘strictly race-based,’ which concedes that it was partially race-based,” Dunn said. “Court precedent says citing the look on someone’s face is actually a basis for alleging race-based reasoning which supports our argument for the Batson challenge.”
After a lengthy break, Moon returned to the court and denied the Batson challenge. Though he said he would not and could not find that the juror had been evasive or deceitful in his answers, Moon said that he did find the defense reasons for striking were “race-neutral.”
“I do not find that the juror was being dishonest, but from Mr. Spencer or Mr. Cantwell’s position, I could see how they arrived at the opinion that they have,” he said.
Despite the denial of the Batson challenge, three jurors were passed from a panel interviewed in the morning. One of those jurors was struck by a defense peremptory motion, leaving two to join the 10 empaneled as of Tuesday. According to comments made by Moon, at least four of the jurors are Black.
With the jury now selected, the trial is expected to begin with opening statements on at 9 a.m. Thursday.