Watch CBS News

Charlottesville "Unite the Right" civil trial begins, four years after the rally

Charlottesville rally trial underway
Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally trial underway 02:17

More than four years after white supremacists wreaked havoc in Charlottesville, Virginia, victims of the violence are suing the neo-Nazis and white nationalists who organized the protests, claiming in civil court that the organizers of the "Unite the Right" rally planned the violent attacks against counter-protesters, resulting in the death of one protester and the injury of more than a dozen others. The trial kicked off Monday in federal court with jury selection.

Ten members of the Charlottesville community, some of whom were injured as a result of the violence, brought the lawsuit against a group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hate groups. Ten organizations are being sued and the other 14 defendants are people who orchestrated the weekend events that culminated in violence in August 2017 claim their actions are covered by freedom of speech and that the violence was unplanned and took place when rally goers acted in self-defense, while plaintiffs claim that it was carefully coordinated.

"There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal-clear at the outset — the violence at Charlottesville was no accident," the complaint says. "The violence, suffering, and emotional distress that occurred in Charlottesville was a direct, intended, and foreseeable result of Defendants' unlawful conspiracy."

The rally drew hundreds of white nationalists who were there in part to protest the city's decision to remove a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park.

One of the defendants, James Alex Fields Jr, has previously pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges and admitted that he intentionally plowed his speeding car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. He has been sentenced to life in prison.

In total, the death toll that weekend rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor's motorcade crashed, killing two troopers. 

The protests led to a national uproar when President Trump blamed the violence at the rally on "both sides," a statement critics saw as a refusal to condemn racism. During his campaign, Mr. Biden said the events in Charlottesville became the catalyst for his run for the presidency.

The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount in monetary damages, and are hoping to deter future events like that from happening in Charlottesville, or anywhere in America, ever again. 

Executive director Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit that is supporting the lawsuit, told CBS News in a statement, "The violence in Charlottesville four years ago was no accident. And at a moment of rising extremism, this case makes clear that violent hate won't go unanswered — that accountability and justice matter."

According to CBS Charlottesville affiliate WCAV, the plaintiffs have terabytes of evidence proving the events of the rally were orchestrated, and detailed messages exchanged on the  online platform Discord, a gaming and messaging app that they say was used to organize the rally.

In addition to the digital evidence, which details hateful anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric, plaintiffs will argue that the defendants violated a Civil War-era law that was used to stop the Ku Klux Klan from terrorizing and infringing on the civil rights of African Americans.  

In court on Monday, Judge Norman K. Moon instructed a group of impaneled jurors that they must not search for or interact with any news or information about the case, and warned, "you are just simply not allowed to talk about the case with anyone." He indicated that they do not anticipate having a full jury until possibly Wednesday morning, when opening arguments could take place. The trial is expected to last four weeks. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.