Press "Enter" to skip to content

Plaintiff describes ongoing trauma as defendants push free speech arguments

Injury from the Unite the Right torch march and rally went beyond physical wounds, according to testimony in the Sines v. Kessler trial. While the murder of Heather Heyer was the worst outcome, a plaintiff Monday talked about lingering trauma and nightmares as defendants pushed a suppressed speech narrative.

Most of Monday’s hearing revolved around Devin Willis, who was an 18-year-old University of Virginia student at the time of the rallies. Though present for both the UVa torch march and the subsequent Unite the Right rally, Willis was not among those injured in the car attack.

Willis, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, began the day by finishing up testimony from Friday, describing the physical and mental toll the rallies took on him.

At one point an active part of academics and extracurriculars, Willis said after the rallies he found it difficult to concentrate and relate to his peers, becoming withdrawn. His grades and mental health continued to suffer and in the end Willis said he was “just happy to have graduated on time.”

“I still struggle with a lot of the mental and emotional things, and I still feel like I can’t get back the things that I’ve lost,” he said. “The nightmares subsided until I came back here for this trial.”

Willis’ testimony Monday kicked off the second week of a civil lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The lawsuit, filed four years ago on behalf of nine Charlottesville area residents in the wake of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally and preceding UVa torch march, alleges that key organizers and participants conspired to come to the city and commit acts of racist violence.

Several of those defendants or their counsel were afforded the opportunity to question Willis, with most being concerned about whether the plaintiff had seen them or their clients at the rallies.

Because it is a conspiracy case, the plaintiffs do not need to prove that they can identify the defendants in the rally crowds, something U.S. District Judge Moon has pointed out to the defendants at several points so far.

The plaintiffs need only convince a jury of the conspiracy allegation via the preponderance of the evidence standard, rather than the higher bar of beyond reasonable doubt used in criminal trials.

Bryan Jones, a Charlottesville based attorney representing defendants Michael Hill, Michael Tubbs and the League of the South, spent much of his cross-examination time asking Willis about the UTR rally.

Specifically, Jones appeared to be trying to set up the foundation that Willis and other anti-racist demonstrators prevented protesters from entering Market Street Park on Aug. 12, 2017, a claim Willis denied.

Willis said he joined other demonstrators at the rally in blocking Market Street, but repeatedly told defense counsel throughout the day that there were alternative routes to get into the park where the UTR rally was set to happen.

“I think if the pathway on Market Street [to the park] was blocked when we were doing our symbolic stand, then the next most efficient way would have been to just use the sidewalk,” Willis said. “But after that you could go around the block into the park.”

Chris Cantwell, who is representing himself, spent most of his time questioning Willis about the night of the torch rally. Cantwell showed Willis footage of the torch rally, which he remarked was very dim and poorly lit, and asked him to identify people around him. Willis was largely unable to do so.

Cantwell also brought up an Aug. 19, 2017 article from the Daily Progress in which Willis mentioned he was not injured the night of the torch rally. Willis told Cantwell that he was, in fact, injured but had felt bad calling attention to his injuries which, at the time, he saw as small compared to those suffered by others, including his friend and fellow plaintiff Natalie Romero.

When asked about what was unusual about the protest that night, Willis told Cantwell that it was the torches used by the marchers.

“Yeah, the torches were a nice touch,” Cantwell responded.

The torches were also a part of attorney Josh Smith’s line of questioning. Smith, who later in the hearing was interrupted often by the court for his argumentative questions, pushed Willis to define why the torches stood out to him.

“There are not really any circumstances in 2017 that demand fire as the primary mode of lighting when phone flashlights exist,” Willis said. “To me it seems like that was an intentional choice to hearken back to days of lynching and other famous incidents of mob violence.”

Following Willis’ testimony, the plaintiffs called Samantha Froelich to the stand virtually. Froelich, who is the first non-party witness to testify, spoke largely to her experiences joining, and eventually leaving, the alt-right movement.

Characterizing her experience as “embarrassing” and “filled with regret,” Froelich described the circumstances that led her to join defendant Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group comprised of mostly college-aged men, at the behest of her ex-boyfriend and defendant Elliott Kline.

Froelich said she was attracted to Identity Evropa because members distanced themselves from other alt-right groups, appearing less obviously racist.

“It was how they branded themselves and marketed themselves as ‘we wear slacks and loafers and we go to colleges and talk to like young folks and we try to start dialogue with them.’” Froelich said. “Whereas other groups kind of came across as this very blatant like National Socialists with swastika tattoos and were just much more like obvious and gruff sounding, and I had no intention of being a Nazi.”

After joining Identity Evropa in December 2016, Froelich said she would quickly come to learn about the hatred entrenched in both the group and the wider alt-right movement. This hatred was particularly directed at non-white and Jewish people, the latter of whom she said most of those aligned with the alt-right did not view as white.

Much of Froelich’s testimony centered on terms used by the alt-right and how they were defined. The majority of these terms had anti-Semetic intentions and traced their origins to Nazi Germany.

Froelich testified for roughly a half-hour before court ended for the day. Her testimony is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday.


Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    %d bloggers like this: