‘Unite the Right’ trial jurors hear closings in Virginia

Posted at 4:33 PM, November 18, 2021 and last updated 8:34 PM, July 17, 2023

By DENISE LAVOIE AP Legal Affairs Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (AP) — Lawyers for nine people hurt during the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville told a jury Thursday that white nationalists “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially motivated violence that killed one counterprotester and injured dozens more.

Their arguments in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville came in a lawsuit alleging that two dozen white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremist organizations conspired to commit violence during two days of demonstrations.

FILE – In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. A trial is beginning in Charlottesville, Virginia to determine whether white nationalists who planned the so-called “Unite the Right” rally will be held civilly responsible for the violence that erupted. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File)

During their closing presentation, plaintiffs’ attorneys showed the jury dozens of text messages, chat room exchanges and social media postings by the rally’s main planners. Some were filled with racial epithets and talk of “cracking skulls” of anti-racist counterprotesters.

“We sued the people who were responsible — the leaders, the promoters, the group leaders, the people who brought the army, the people who were the most violent members of the army. Those are the people who we ask you to hold accountable today,” said attorney Karen Dunn.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists surrounded counterprotesters, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” and threw burning tiki torches at them. An avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler rammed his car into a crowd the next day, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.

James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes for the car attack. He is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages and a judgment that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

Dunn told jurors that although the defendants have attempted to distance themselves from Fields, many of them talked before the rally about their belief that if counterprotesters blocked traffic or were in the way, “you were allowed to plow them over.”

Lawyers for the defendants began their closing arguments by telling jurors that the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs do not prove that the defendants entered into a conspiracy to commit violence.

Attorney James Kolenich, who represents Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally, and two other defendants, said the plaintiffs’ lawyers have shown that the defendants said “ridiculous” and “offensive” things, but have not proven a conspiracy.

“They’ve proven to you that the alt-right is the alt-right. They’re racists, they’re anti-Semites. No kidding. You knew that when you walked in here,” Kolenich said.

“What does that do to prove a conspiracy?” he said.

Kolenich said that when the defendants talked about violence before the rally, they were referring to fistfights, pushing and shoving, not plowing into a crowd with a car.

“There is no foreseeability to this — none — none of these defendants could have foreseen what James Fields did,” Kolenich said.

Lawyers for the defendants have argued during the monthlong trial that there was no conspiracy, and their use of racial epithets and blustery talk in chat rooms before the rally is protected by the First Amendment. Several defendants have testified that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked. They’ve blamed the violence on anti-fascist protesters known as antifa, and also each other.

The trial has featured emotional testimony from people who were struck by Fields’ car or witnessed the attack, as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.

The lawsuit is being funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

Other defendants include some of the nation’s most well-known white nationalists, such as Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right;” Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist known as the “crying Nazi” for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest.