“I’m here because of the harm that was done to me on August 11 and August 12 at the torchlight rally and the car attack and I’m here because I would like those who have harmed me to be held accountable,” said Sines v. Kessler namesake Elizabeth Sines, helping wrap up the third week of trial.
Sines is one of nine plaintiffs alleging in a federal lawsuit that key organizers and participants of the rally conspired to come to Charlottesville and commit acts of racist violence. If successful, the plaintiffs could win millions of dollars in damages.
As with several other plaintiffs who have testified so far, Sines’ testimony Friday focused on the emotional and psychological toll the Unite the Right rally and preceding UVa torch march took on her. Now 27 years-old, the former law student was among the crowd of anti-racist protesters that was struck by James Alex Fields Jr. and also witnessed the torch march.
Working in Baltimore at the time, Sines said she traveled back to Charlottesville to counter-protest against the groups who traveled to the city ostensibly to protest a City Council vote to remove a monument to Robert E. Lee. After reading on Twitter about a white supremacist torch rally set for UVa Grounds, Sines and a friend went to the Rotunda and saw violence engulfing a group of counter-protesters.
“They would pull one student from the [Thomas Jefferson statue] and they would beat them, punch them, kick them. I saw people throwing liquids on them that I thought was maybe pepper spray, people threw their torches at them and used their torches to hit them,” Sines said. “One by one they dragged them away and beat them; it was like watching like cancer cells attack healthy cells one by one until you just couldn’t even see them anymore, they had just been swarmed.”
Despite this violence, Sines said she was determined to counter-protest the Unite the Right rally the next day. Having counter-protested a Charlottesville Ku Klux Klan rally in July of the same year, Sines said she was hopeful that the rally protesters were unlikely to be violent if they were outnumbered as the KKK had been.
However, this was ultimately not the case, and Sines was among the crowd of counter-protesters struck by Fields, though she emerged without any physical injuries. The jury was shown a Facebook Live video shot by Sines in which the plaintiff can be heard screaming and crying as she flees the bloodshed.
“At first I thought it was an accident, I couldn’t believe that anyone would do something like that on purpose,” she said. “But then, when he started to reverse and run over the people who had hit, I knew he was trying to kill as many people as possible.”
Sines said she did not receive treatment for PTSD and depression until years after the attack due to a fear of stigma.
“I just thought that things would get better eventually,” she said. “I thought that maybe if I just gave it more time or maybe if I could find a thing that works for me, I would be able to feel better. But I didn’t get better.”
In general, the defendants and their attorneys have been fairly cautious when questioning plaintiffs who suffered physical injuries in the car attack. While that same courtesy has not been extended to those who were present but not physically injured, Sines’ cross-examination Friday stood out as particularly aggressive.
Defendant Chris Cantwell, who has been forced to represent himself due to a lack of an attorney willing to represent him, has repeatedly questioned the plaintiff witnesses about the attire of counter-protesters. That trend continued with Sines, though Cantwell, who was himself photographed sobbing after the UTR rally, got visibly angry as he accused the plaintiff of deleting her video of the car attack in some purported effort to hide other people in the crowd.
“I deleted this video because of how graphic it is and because I didn’t want my family and friends to have to see me sobbing after almost getting hit by the car,” Sines said through tears.
Cantwell also aggressively asked Sines about whether she knew everyone at the Jefferson statue the night of the torch march, naming a long list of counter-protesters alleged to have been present. Cantwell took issue with Sines characterizing the counter-protesters as students, leading the plaintiff to again cite a banner being held that read “UVa students against white supremacy.”
“I saw the Nazis attack the students or the people at the statue,” she affirmed.
The plaintiffs also called two expert witnesses to testify about damages, specifically regarding the cost and need for medical treatment for the plaintiffs.
The first of these witnesses was Sharon Reavis, a health and rehabilitation counseling expert, who developed treatment plans for four of the plaintiffs. Those plans were significant in cost, ranging from $197,000 to $593,000 as they address the needs of the survivors throughout their lives.
The second witness was Dr. Nadia Webb, a medical expert with a background in neuropsychology, who spoke to the need for psychological treatment among four plaintiffs, all of whom she said met the criteria for major PTSD and major depressive disorder.
PTSD is often caused by trauma from disasters and is more likely to result from human-caused disasters, she said. PTSD can also change the way people think and feel, even affecting the way they process and retain memories.
“They may also have a change in their view of the world and view it as much more dangerous than they did before this traumatic event,” she said. “Particularly if it was a human-caused event, they may have a sense of guilt or blame themselves for things they could not have stopped.”
Dave Campbell, Fields’ attorney, had been largely quiet during the trial, rarely asking witnesses more than a few questions. This changed dramatically following the testimony from both expert witnesses, with Campbell opting to ask a series of highly specific questions, at one point asking Reavis to explain line-items on her treatment plans.
The final witness called Friday was defendant Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. Schoep differs from the other plaintiffs, having left far-right extremism and rejecting the white supremacist identifier as he now claims to work against those ideologies.
However, despite Schoep’s change of ideology, he often clashed with plaintiffs’ counsel during testimony even after he claimed he was trying to be “as transparent as possible.”
Schoep declined to take full responsibility for the creation of the Nationalist Front — a coalition of groups that included defendants the Traditionalist Worker Party, League of the South and the National Socialist Movement. Schoep also resisted questions about propaganda and the NSM’s usage of it as a recruitment tool.
At one point Schoep was shown a video of the Nationalist Front marching into counter-protesters on Market Street park and asked to identify himself. After arguing that he could not identify himself based on the back of his head, Judge Norman K. Moon interrupted the proceeding.
“Were you in that immediate group, walking in with those people?” Moon said. “Would you stand up and turn your back to the jury? I think they can tell whether it is you or not.”
The cross-examination of Schoep did not end Friday and is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Monday in Charlottesville’s federal court.