As the tedious process of jury selection ended Monday, a pool of dozens of jurors was whittled down to seven for the Sines v. Kessler trial.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of nine Charlottesville area residents, accuses more than a dozen organizers and participants of the Unite the Right rally.
Filed in October 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the lawsuit alleges that the 14 individuals and 10 groups conspired to invade Charlottesville in August 2017 to enact racially-motivated violence.
Bandied about for four years due to delays related to uncooperative defendants and the COVID-19 pandemic, the trial at last kicked off Monday morning in Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.
Present in the courtroom were various defendants and their counsel including Richard Spencer, Nathan Damigo, Chris Cantwell and others. Due to health precautions, the only people allowed in the courtroom are the parties, court staff and jury.
In order to minimize the amount of contact, risk of infection and jury prejudice, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon called jurors in small groups and questioned them individually.
“Frankly I think the conditions here in the courtroom make it safer to be here than to be anywhere in public,” Moon said.
Ultimately, a panel of 12 jurors will need to be seated in order for the trial to formally begin. This 12-juror panel will be the result of various questioning that is partially based on pre-trial questionnaire answers and six perfunctory strikes from both the defendants and the plaintiffs.
Many of the questions that attorneys asked Monday revolved around whether jurors would be unduly burdened by serving as a juror over the course of the four-week trial and whether the potential jurors would be able to set aside their preconceived opinions about the rally and defendants.
Several potential jurors were struck early on due to health or work reasons. One of the early jurors to be struck said that he was a “news junkie” and that, though opinionated, he thought he could separate his opinion from the facts of the case.
“This whole town was turned on its head by the whole affair, I mean, just look at what happened over the last couple years,” the juror said before being questioned what he meant by Moon. “I think as a community we want to get it behind us and see justice done.”
However, the juror was still struck due to his belief that several of the defendants were terrorists.
Another struck juror mentioned that he did not feel comfortable wearing a mask because of various health issues. However, in his questionnaire the same juror mentioned he did not want to wear a mask because it conflicted with his Christian views.
“Having read the Bible, I don’t remember there being anything about masks,” Cantwell, who is representing himself, said in response to the juror’s questionnaire answer.
Karen Dunn, counsel for the plaintiffs, at various times raised the issue of some juror answers in regards to distrust or distaste of antifa. Generally defined more as an ideology than a group, antifa has been partially blamed by some for the violence at the UTR rally.
Though Dunn said that none of the plaintiffs are associated with antifa, she did express concern that some jurors might project their negative feelings onto the plaintiffs, thus prejudicing them. Cantwell, who previously mentioned that he believed there was a connection between one of the plaintiffs and antifa, later said that he would not bring up the argument during trial.
Moon appeared unswayed by this argument, pointing to the lack of evidence of connection in either the plaintiffs or defendants case.
Of the first panel of jurors questioned, only one of the struck jurors prompted much argument from the plaintiffs. This juror, who said she was a bus driver, took a while to answer whether she could set aside her preconceived opinions before ultimately answering that she was not sure.
Dunn argued that the juror, the only person of color interviewed up to that point, was qualified for the jury based on the way she answered.
“When asked about whether she could set aside her opinions, she said ‘I could, I know how to be fair,’” Dunn argued. “We believe her answers qualify her, and similarly on her questionnaire she said she hoped that she could be fair.”
Moon disagreed and said he had done all he could to rehabilitate the juror and thus dismissed the juror for cause.
The second panel of jurors questioned went largely the same, with a mixture of those aware of the events of August 2017 and those less aware. However, several of the potential jurors in the second group were asked about their views on racism, specifically whether white people could be the victims of racism.
One of the jurors who led to the most arguments indicated that he did not believe that white people could be the victims of racism given their non-minority status. Cantwell described this view as “extreme” and Spencer said his questionnaire answer about antifa fighting the “far-right movement” was not a balanced view. The juror was ultimately struck.
All together, six jurors from the second batch were deemed qualified by Moon and only one was removed by a perfunctory strike on behalf of the defense.
The second day of jury selection is expected to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
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