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Tearful testimony opens first trial of man who participated in 2017 torch-carrying mob at UVa

The tearful testimony of a Jewish University of Virginia alumna was the first evidence presented in the trial of Jacob Joseph Dix, an Ohio man charged with using fire to racially intimidate for his role in the 2017 torch-carrying mob at the University of Virginia the night before the deadly Unite the Right rally-turned riot.

Diane D’Costa told the jury about Aug. 11, 2017, the day she moved into her room on UVa’s hallowed Lawn, the center of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, when she heard chanting outside her door.

"I’m literally putting sheets on my mattress, and I hear a guttural, angry, rhythmic chant of ‘You will not replace us,’ said D’Costa. "It turned into ‘Jews will not replace us.’"

With this revelation, D’Costa began sobbing.

"I was terrified," she testified through her tears. "I was looking at the people."

D’Costa’s sobs intensified such that she paused her answers before resuming her testimony, telling the jury that has the chanting continued outsider her door she hid a painting featuring a Star of David in her dormitory. And while trying to remove the necklace she was wearing featuring a hamsa, a traditional Middle Eastern symbol of protection, she said she inadvertently broke it.

"It was really hard to see a place that I loved like this," she said. "It’s my deepest trauma."

After the close of D’Costa’s testimony, she ran from the stand, her cries still audible inside the main courtroom of the Albemarle County Circuit Court, where what’s expected to be a four-day trial began Tuesday.

Jury selection started earlier in the day, accomplished without going beyond the initial pool of 32 possible jurors.

One prospective juror, the sole Black person in the pool, said she once worked a part-time job with Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler; she was not selected. Nor was the woman who said she had so many "personal things going on" that she was unaware of the torch-carrying mob that marched across UVa Grounds and made headlines around the world back in 2017.

As Judge H. Thomas Padrick oversaw the winnowing of the pool down to nine men and five women, he heard from one man who complained that Unite the Right impaired local tranquility.

"I thought the protest was wrong and that it shouldn’t have happened," the prospective juror said.

That man said he held three master’s degrees and heads a team that studies satellite imagery for the U.S. Defense Department. He made it to the 14-person panel after saying he would decide the case on its merits. At the close of trial, two of the 14 will be excused to let 12 people make the decision.

At the center of it all is the 29-year-old Dix, a truck driver based in Clarksville, Ohio. While his lawyer has already persuaded the judge to ban the prosecution from labeling him and other march participants with pejoratives, such as Nazi or White supremacist, there’s an elephant in the room: the shirt Dix was wearing that night.

A photograph entered into evidence shows him wearing a shirt with the number 88 on its front; the number is a popular code in White supremacist and neo-Nazi circles for "Heil Hitler, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, who is standing in for local prosecutors after they were forced to recuse themselves from the case, asked questions after one witness testified to seeing the shirt.

"Any sports team names?" asked Taylor.

"No," replied the witness.

"Any Nike logo? Any logo whatsoever?"

The witness, Emily Gorcenski, said she saw no such logos.

Well known among trackers of racist gatherings, the data scientist Gorcenski now lives in Germany. On the night of the 2017 march, when still living in Charlottesville, she livestreamed video of the march. That footage was played in court Tuesday.

"This is 20 people standing against what is coming," she can be heard narrating while viewing a group of counterprotesters with arms locked around the base of the Jefferson statue in front of the university’s iconic Rotunda. She can be heard on the video railing not just against the torch-bearers but against the masses she had hoped would have joined her in opposition.

"Where the fuck are the rest of you?" she asks.

She turns the camera to her own face.

"We are penned in," she says in the video. "We are surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Nazis. We have no way out."

Another prosecutor previously said that the focus of the admittedly belated prosecutions, seven years after the alleged crimes took place, is on only those who surrounded counterprotesters the night of Aug. 11, 2017. Thus far, prosecutors have one five convictions with penalties ranging from roughly 40 days to a year behind bars, out of the statutory maximum of five years.

Dix’s defense attorney Peter Frazier, however, has alleged that the guilty pleas were secured by holding out-of-state defendants without bail. He has blasted the prosecution for targeting his client for his Aryan appearance, including a square jaw and neatly shorn blond hair.

According to Frazier, Dix didn’t do any surrounding on the night in question, so prosecutor Taylor is steering the case toward other alleged misdeeds.

Gorcenski, for instance, testified that Dix shouted at her while carrying his torch.

"He called me a leftist piece of shit," said Gorcenski.

The prosecutor seemed to allude to Frazier’s prior statements in her opening statement.

"Don’t judge him on his appearance," she told the jurors. "We are asking you to judge him on his actions."

While the second witness was a little-known UVa police officer named Kasey Templeton, who didn’t join the investigation until January of 2023, better known was the third witness, Larry Sabato.

A renowned author and political pundit, Sabato is the founder and leader of UVa’s Center for Politics. He also resides on the Lawn.

Sabato said that in 2017 then-UVa President Teresa Sullivan asked him over dinner to be on the lookout for the Aug. 11 march.

"She asked me to be on the Lawn during the whole evening," said Sabato. "I was in shock that it was happening."

Sabato also testified to seeing a burn on the hand of then-Dean of Students Allen Groves. The court file shows that an attempt to subpoena Groves to testify failed because of an outdated address.

Many legal cases previously decided in the Charlottesville area against right-wing figures have resulted in dramatic decisions, most recently the 2021 decision in the Sines v. Kessler federal civil suit, a multi-million-dollar jury verdict against the Unite the Right rally organizers.

Is Frazier already eyeing the appeals process? He has challenged the legality, timing and location of the prosecution, and spoken of the First Amendment and his own philosophy in his opening statement.

"I don’t defend clients," he said. "I defend the Constitution."


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