The defendants in the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit are trying to evade responsibility, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said in response to a series of motions seeking to alter a jury verdict.
Although a federal jury found the defendants guilty of participating in a civil conspiracy under Virginia law and ordered them to pay approximately $26 million in damages, virtually all of the defendants have sought to alter this verdict.
The yearslong lawsuit was an effort by various Charlottesville area residents to hold key organizers and participants of the deadly Unite the Right rally and preceding torch march on University of Virginia grounds accountable for violence that engulfed the city in August 2017.
The prolific Sines v. Kessler trial wrapped in November after more than a month of testimony, hundreds of pieces of evidence and two days of jury deliberations.
But the defendants have been fighting the order since the trial ended via a series of post-trial motions filed earlier this year. In these motions the defendants argued a litany of reasons why the damages should be reduced, they should receive new trials, or the verdict should be tossed altogether.
On Thursday, counsel for the plaintiffs filed a lengthy response to these post-trial defense motions, broadly arguing that the evidence presented during trial was more than sufficient to support the jury’s findings. A federal judge will assess the arguments and make a determination on the validity of the defense’s argument. If the judge rules against the defendants then they may still have grounds to appeal the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The plaintiffs’ response is signed by Karen Dunn, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
“The jury unanimously found that defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy in violation of Virginia law. That verdict is supported by the overwhelming evidence adduced at trial and should not be disturbed,” wrote Dunn. “Through their motions, defendants seek to disrupt the jury’s unanimous findings and evade accountability for their heinous acts of violence and hatred.”
The opposition filing is a direct response to post-trial motions filed by defendants Nathan Damigo, Identity Evropa, Jason Kessler, Christopher Cantwell, Richard Spencer, Michael Hill, Michael Tubbs and League of the South.
Before addressing each defendant’s argument individually, Dunn recounted efforts by several of the defendants to have the case dismissed prior to jury instruction. This motion was denied, Dunn wrote.
“Specifically, the court ‘concluded that none of the [defendants] established that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the plaintiffs on the issues so raised,’ but ‘[r]ather, the evidence presented raised a triable issue for the jury on the issue whether the movant Defendants had conspired to commit racially motivated violence at the Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12, 2017,’” Dunn wrote.
When considering a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under the defendant’s cited code section, the court must simply determine whether substantial evidence supports the jury’s verdict, Dunn wrote. The court cannot make credibility determinations or reweigh the evidence, but instead must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, she wrote.
“In other words, the court may substitute its judgment for the jury’s only if ‘there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the proper judgment,’” Dunn wrote, quoting from several case precedents. “While [the defense cited code section] permits a party to move for judgment as a matter of law on claims where the jury fails to return a verdict, the court must deny the motion unless it finds that the non-moving party ‘failed to adduce substantial evidence in support of’ their claims.”
Similarly, Dunn argued that a new trial can be granted at the court’s discretion if the defendants demonstrate that “the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false, or will result in a miscarriage of justice.” The defendants have failed to do so, she wrote.
In a section breaking down each defendant’s arguments, Dunn wrote that the court should deny post-trial motions seeking judgment as a matter of law and/or new trials.
First, the motion by defendants Damigo, Identity Evropa and Kessler, should be denied Dunn wrote. Dunn argued that a directed verdict as to the conspiracy claims, should be denied because the defendants have not demonstrated that the plaintiffs “failed to adduce substantial evidence” in support of their claims
Additionally, Dunn wrote that Damigo, Kessler and Identity Evropa cannot show that there was “no evidentiary basis” for the jury’s verdict as to the state conspiracy count.
The court must deny Kessler’s motion to overturn the jury’s verdict on damages because he has not met his burden of proof, she wrote. Cantwell’s motions should be denied for the same reasons, she wrote.
Defendant Spencer’s motion, March 9, arguing for an effective dismissal of state conspiracy count and related damages should be denied because the evidence supports the jury’s verdict against him, she wrote.
The motions by defendants Hill, Tubbs, and League of the South, arguing for directed verdicts for all conspiracy claims, should be denied, Dunn wrote, because they cannot show plaintiff’s did not adduce substantial evidence in support of their claims and have not met their burden to overturn the jury’s state conspiracy verdict.
The 58-page motion goes into detail for each of the defendants, largely again outlining evidence that the plaintiffs presented during trial.
In arguing against Damigo’s claims that no evidence at trial would “allow the jury to find … foreseeability of any acts that injured any plaintiff,” Dunn wrote that the court already ruled that the plaintiffs presented substantial evidence that “it was foreseeable that violent acts would happen.” This evidence included “talk on the Internet about … whether someone could drive a car through a crowd of demonstrators that might be blocking the street.”
Perhaps the lengthiest section of the motion is dedicated to addressing Cantwell’s arguments. Cantwell, who is currently imprisoned for crimes not directly related to the events in Charlottesville, has been a particularly prolific legal participant, filing more than a dozen handwritten post-trial motions of dubious quality.
Cantwell is not represented by an attorney meaning his motions, in addition to being handwritten from prison, often include arguments outside the scope of the case. Throughout the case he has alleged conspiracies to silence him while filing more motions and documents than any other defendant.
The court has already extended the post-trial deadlines in response to Cantwell’s requests, although the mere weeks granted by the court fall short of the year extension requested by Cantwell.
Similarly to the other defendants, Dunn argued that Cantwell’s motions should be denied wholesale as the evidence overwhelmingly supported the jury’s findings.
“The evidence at trial showed that Cantwell is a racist, anti-Semitic White supremacist whose casual bigotry commands the attention of tens of thousands of alt-right listeners and viewers,” Dunn wrote. “Cantwell knew that many of his listeners were ready and willing to foment violence in an effort to advance their shared vision of a white ethnostate — and he wholeheartedly endorsed both the means and the end.”
Although the court has discretion as to how to weigh the evidence on a motion for a new trial, Dunn wrote that evidence against Cantwell is overwhelming.
“Furthermore, to the extent Cantwell claims that plaintiffs’ evidence is somehow ‘false’ because plaintiffs are ‘lying terrorist Antifa members,’ Cantwell repeatedly made this argument at trial and during his cross-examinations of plaintiffs,” Dunn wrote. “Plaintiffs presented overwhelming evidence that none of them are members of Antifa, and the jury clearly credited plaintiffs’ testimony and rejected Cantwell’s spurious assertions. The Court should not disturb the jury’s determinations.”
It is unclear when a federal judge will rule on the post-trial motions, but given post-trial deadlines it appears likely that a ruling won’t be issued until May or later.