More than four years after two white supremacist rallies shook the Charlottesville community, key organizers and defendants will return but in a very different light: as defendants in a major lawsuit.
The Charlottesville case, as it has become known to some outside of the area, is an expansive lawsuit targeting key organizers and participants of both the Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally and preceding torch march on the University of Virginia grounds.
Images of the torch rally and the subsequent violence at the UTR rally spread across the globe and culminated in a vehicular attack by James Alex Fields Jr. and the murder of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer.
Ostensibly, the rallies were prompted by a 2017 vote by the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Aug. 12 rally sought to use the statue as a rallying point, and the scene quickly became the focal point of violence, leading to the dispersal of participants and counter-protesters and scattered violence.
Nearly four years later, the city was finally able to remove the Lee statue on July 10 of this year, leaving behind only a scar in the earth where it once stood. The scars, both physical and emotional, have also lingered among the survivors of the rally and the community.
In the aftermath of the rally, much attention was paid to the racist rhetoric and calls to violence employed by the white supremacist organizers and participants leading up to the rally. Much of this rhetoric was leaked via the website Unicorn Riot, which released hundreds of screenshots and messages from a Discord server used by rally planners. These screenshots would go on to form the basis of the lawsuit.
Though many legal actions — both criminal and civil — have arisen from the rallies, the Sines v. Kessler is unique in its scope and resources. With this lawsuit, various plaintiffs have previously stated that they hope to send a message to white supremacists and neo-Nazis that hate will not be tolerated.
Filed on Oct. 11, 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit was financially backed by Integrity First For America, a self-described a “nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to holding those accountable who threaten longstanding principles of our democracy.”
The lawsuit alleges that 14 individuals and 10 organizations engaged in a racist conspiracy that led to them terrorizing and harming residents of Charlottesville, violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and various other statutes. The bulk of these claims are supported by conversations and remarks made on online forums, according to the lawsuit.
Receiving its plaintiff namesake from Elizabeth Sines, a UVa law student at the time of the rally who now works a law firm in Baltimore, the lawsuit contains a wide array of area residents among its plaintiffs, including a minister, several car attack survivors, several students and various community figures.
The first named defendant, Jason Kessler, was a key organizer of the rally and a resident of the Charlottesville area. A self-described white nationalist, Kessler gained notoriety for his role in the UTR rally and has been named as a defendant in various rally-related lawsuits since.
Among the other defendants are: Fields; Alt Right figurehead Richard Spencer; Chris “Crying Nazi” Cantwell; neo-Confederate League of the South and its leaders, Michael Tubbs and Michael Hill; the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Movement and its former leader Jeff Schoep; neo-Nazi podcaster Robert “Azzmador” Ray; the white nationalist Identity Evropa and its founder Nathan Damigo and former leader Elliott Kline; the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party and its founder, Matthew Heimbach and leader Matthew Parrott; and Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group Fields was photographed alongside at the UTR rally.
Default judgment, or guilty ruling, in favor of the plaintiffs has already been entered against seven other defendants: Andrew Anglin; Moonbase Holdings, LLC; East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights; Augustus Sol Invictus; Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; and the Nationalist Front.
Without the constitutional right to a speedy trial — which only applies to criminal cases — the civil litigation often drags on for years, an issue exacerbated in the Sines v. Kessler case by uncooperative defendants. It did not take long for several defendants to refuse to turn over documents and electronic devices, sometimes claiming to have lost or damaged the device or just ignoring the court outright, per court documents.
Though uncommon in civil litigation, plaintiffs have already won financial and evidentiary sanctions against several defendants. The long-winding suit has seen several defendants sanctioned for withholding documents via adverse inference jury instructions, which will allow plaintiffs’ counsel to tell a jury that they can interpret the defendants’ actions were committed in bad faith.
Even less common are the issuance of bench warrants — two of which were issued for defendants Kline and Ray for contempt of court. Kline spent several days in jail before purging himself of contempt but Ray remains on the lam, sought on both a federal warrant and a local one for crimes committed in Albemarle County at the 2017 UVa torch rally.
Cantwell has also posed a logistical difficulty for the trial, initially via allegedly threatening the plaintiffs’ Jewish counsel, and more recently due to his imprisonment for crimes unrelated to the lawsuit.
However, perhaps the biggest recent challenge has been determining how to safely hold a jury trial for a case of this significance amid an ongoing pandemic.
In an effort to ensure safety, the number of people allowed in the Charlottesville federal courtroom has been limited to litigants, counsel and their staff, jurors, witnesses, court staff and security. However, any interested members of the public and press will be able to listen to a live audio broadcast of the trial, details of which are posted on the federal court’s website.
Despite efforts from some defendants to move the trial outside of Charlottesville, jury selection will commence at 9:30 a.m. on Monday. It is unclear how long the selection process will take, but given the extent of jury-related motions filed in recent weeks it seems likely the process could last several days.
Ultimately, the plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment that the defendants actions deprived them of their rights under federal and state law, injunctive relief enjoining the defendants from future violations of those rights and compensatory and statutory damages to be determined by the jury.
The Sines v. Kessler trial is currently scheduled to end on Nov. 19.