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Ohio man who participated in torch-bearing mob at UVa in 2017 heads to trial

For the first time, a jury will get to consider one of the felony intimidation charges against a participant in the torch-bearing mob that marched across University of Virginia Grounds in 2017.

The early June trial of Jacob Joseph Dix, who marched with at least 200 others the night before the violent Unite the Right rally-turned-riot in Charlottesville, will be a public test of the prosecutorial discretion of Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, who has lodged the charges against Dix and his fellow marchers.

However, Hingeley has been sidelined and replaced by Henrico County’s commonwealth’s attorney, Shannon L. Taylor.

“We have serious charges, and my goal is to ensure a fair presentation of the evidence,” Taylor told The Daily Progress.

Now in her fourth term in office, the 56-year-old was tapped in mid-February to prosecute Dix, a resident of Clarksville, Ohio, after Dix’s lawyer persuaded a judge that Hingeley’s office suffered from a conflict of interest due to some employees’ association with anti-racist counterprotesters before, during and after the racist mob chanted “Jews will not replace us” as it marched across Grounds.

This is the first time anyone has ever been brought to trial under a Virginia law that bans burning objects in order to racially intimidate, billed as a Class 6 felony. Nevertheless, Taylor said she is ready.

“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years,” Taylor said. “Just like with any case, we’re going to look at the evidence and look at this statute.”

Taylor has some experience with prosecuting extremist right-wing violence. Three years ago, she secured several convictions against Harry Howard Rogers, a self-proclaimed Ku Klux Klan leader who drove a pickup truck into a crowd of people pushing for a Confederate memorial’s removal in Richmond.

Dix, a now 29-year-old truck driver, claims that he was neither violent nor intimidating the night of Aug. 11, 2017. And while the UVa torch march earned widespread condemnation for its optics, which included the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil,” his lawyer contends that what happened that night was not criminal.

“These men simply stood around with Hawaiian flashlights expressing protected speech,” Frazier wrote in a bail motion for another defendant, 25-year-old Texas resident Thomas Ryan Rousseau who founded the White nationalist group known as Patriot Front. “Yet the Commonwealth asserts that this lawful assembly magically became a mass felony event because counter protestors got scared.”

The man who has been prosecuting as many as a dozen of these cases, Lawton Tufts, has disagreed. In court, he has alleged that the torch-bearers were guided by racial animus when they encircled a group of counterprotesters gathered at a statue of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson at the base of UVa’s iconic Rotunda.

Since the days of Jim Crow and the KKK, Virginia has criminalized burning crosses. But a little over two decades ago, as a pair of Virginia cases made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the commonwealth wrote a new law to ban the burning of “any object” on public or trespassed land if the goal is racial intimidation.

In a recent hearing, both prosecution and defense noted that nobody has yet gone to trial under this law, which prescribes a jail term up to five years if there’s a conviction.

The commonwealth’s attorney at the time of the torch march, Republican Robert Tracci, declined to prosecute anyone who participated in the march due to his contention that a lit torch was not a burning object. However, Hingeley made a promise during his 2019 campaign for Tracci’s seat that he would reverse course and bring charges against the men. Voters chose Hingeley over Tracci.

Hingeley followed through on his campaign promise by seeking indictments against the marchers, which have been unsealed one by one over the past year.

As Hingeley’s office’s replacement in the Dix case, Taylor said she’ll keep a close eye on the evidence.

“You’re looking at the conduct of the individual who is burning an object and then you’re looking at how it may be impressed on another — what is the perception?” she asked “What was the reasoning behind the selection of the victims?”

Frazier has an answer for such questions in his recent bail motion. He wrote the victims chose themselves by following the marchers and refusing pleas from UVa officials to leave.

“They wanted to face down the torch demonstrators,” Frazier wrote. “They got their wish.”

While two of the four defendants who have pleaded guilty to the intimidation charges have received and served six-month sentences, Frazier has succeeded in pushing not just Hingeley’s office but also two local circuit judges off Dix’s case. In prior filings, Frazier has suggested that he might call one judge, Claude Worrell, as well as Worrell’s wife and daughter, who have been anti-racist activists, to testify. Asked how she feels about facing off against one of Charlottesville’s more energetic defense attorneys, Taylor said she’s prepared.

“I was a defense attorney for three and half years, and I appreciate zealous advocacy,” said Taylor with a laugh. “We have been communicating well.”

An Albemarle County native, Taylor graduated from Albemarle High School in 1985 and got her undergraduate degree from UVa before studying law at the University of Richmond.

“She is a very experienced prosecutor,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told The Daily Progress. “She’s independent and open-minded, so people should have confidence that she’ll do a professional job.”

Tobias added the interns he sent to the Henrico prosecutor’s office reported favorable experiences.

“Everything I hear is positive,” said Tobias. “She gets good reviews.”

Tobias said that having an outside prosecutor could benefit the public more than the participants.

“There isn’t much upside for her,” he said. “Maybe it’s a breath of fresh air — someone who isn’t invested in it.”

The trial is slated to run June 4-7 in Albemarle Circuit Court.


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