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Jury awards $26 million in Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally civil case

Verdict in "Unite the Right" civil trial
Jury awards $26 million in Charlottesville "Unite the Right" trial 06:54

A federal jury found white supremacists and neo-Nazi organizers of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville engaged in a conspiracy to intimidate, harass or harm ahead of the deadly weekend four years ago, and awarded plaintiffs $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The jury did not reach a verdict on two federal conspiracy charges, but did find that every defendant — including notorious white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell — was liable for civil conspiracy under Virginia state law.

Twelve defendants and five organizations, including longstanding hate group League of the South, were ordered to pay damages.

James Alex Fields Jr., who is serving a life sentence for a car-attack that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 more, faces more than half of the total damages assessed — $14 million.

The case centered on leaders of the "alt-right" rally in August 2017 that featured mobs chanting "Jews will not replace us" while encircling counter-protesters on the University of Virginia campus, wielding and in some cases throwing burning tiki torches as they marched. 

The jury was not able to agree on whether the defendants had, under a 150-year-old federal statute, conspired to commit racially motivated violence. But the 11-member panel determined that five of the defendants — including Kessler, Spencer and Cantwell — were liable for engaging in racial, religious, or ethnic harassment or violence, in violation of Virginia state civil law.

Both Spencer and Cantwell represented themselves in trial, with the latter using the courtroom as a stage to promote white supremacist views and his neo-Nazi podcast. Cantwell is currently serving a separate prison sentence for extortion and threats.

Days after the rally, lead organizer Jason Kessler, who graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, called Heyer's death "payback." 

In one now notorious message, Kessler wrote to Spencer ahead of the rally: "We're raising an army my liege. For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it."

Nine plaintiffs — made up of current and former Charlottesville residents — were seeking in this civil case to prove that their constitutional rights were violated when the defendants entered into a conspiracy of racially motivated violence, and they were asking for compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional injuries.

Deadlocked on federal charges

The jury sent a note to the court indicating they were deadlocked and could not reach a decision on the first two claims — whether defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit racial violence, and whether they had knowledge of such a conspiracy, but failed to prevent it.

Those two federal conspiracy charges are outlined in the "Ku Klux Klan Act," an 1871 statute designed to protect African Americans from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, but used in modern day for the first time in Sines v. Kessler.

According to the note from the jury, "We have unanimously decided on claims 3,4,5,6. After reviewing final jury instructions and decided claims 1 and 2 at length, we are deadlocked. We do not believe this will change."

Clerk reads partial verdict in "Unite the Right" civil case, Charlottesville, VA, Nov. 23, 2021. Sketch by William Hennessy Jr.

The post-Civil War era statute — one of the few laws that enables plaintiffs to accuse fellow citizens, rather than the government, of depriving them of their civil rights — has been employed in civil litigation more than once this year.

Some Capitol Police officers and members of Congress are relying on the very same statute to bring their own civil lawsuits over the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. They're seeking to implicate organizers — allegedly including Rudy Giuliani, members of the Proud Boys and even former President Donald Trump — and others who have been accused of inspiring violence, including racially motivated violence, ahead of the riot.

$26 million in damages

Despite the deadlock on federal charges, the jury awarded plaintiffs a large sum — $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages total from the defendants.

For engaging in a "conspiracy to harm, harass or intimidate," the defendants were ordered to pay $11 million total; a dozen defendants were fined $500,000 apiece, while five white supremacist organizations were assessed $1 million in punitive damages. Fields was included in the 12 defendants ordered to pay $500,000.

Plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis received $500,000 total in additional compensatory damages after it was found that five defendants "engaged in racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence." The defendants were also fined $1 million more in punitive damages.

Willis testified about the chemical irritants and racist "monkey noises" he endured as tiki torch-carrying white nationalists marched around the University of Virginia, surrounding the young Black man and college student for hours. Romero suffered a fractured skull after James Fields rammed his car into her and other counter-protesters. To this day, Romero testified that she suffers from panic attacks, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

James Fields was also ordered to pay more than $1.5 million to plaintiffs for physical and emotional injuries they suffered due to his car attack, on top of $12 million in punitive damages, and the $500,000 fine from the conspiracy count.

Plaintiffs' attorney: "We feel that justice was served"

Attorney for the plaintiffs Karen Dunn celebrated the damages awarded by the verdict soon after it was announced, telling reporters outside the federal courthouse, "We feel that justice was served today. There's going to be accountability for the people who did this and we are so grateful for everybody for supporting us and hanging in with our plaintiffs."

Roberta Kaplan, also representing the plaintiffs, said, "I think the verdict today is a message that this country does not tolerate violence based on racial and religious hatred."

However, lawyers for some of the defendants also put a positive spin on the mixed outcome.

"I think it's a huge defeat for the plaintiffs," said Joshua Smith, who represents three defendants and identifies as a "pro-white" attorney. "It's an embarrassment."

What happens next?

James Kolenich, attorney for Jason Kessler and two other defendants, put the court on notice Tuesday that defendants would file a motion to reduce damages based upon the Virginia state cap. Kolenich has expressed anti-Semitic views inside and outside the courthouse.

"I think we did a decent job on the defense side on cutting the damages down to size, even if it is many millions of dollars," Kolenich said.

"I definitely respect the job the jurors did here, but we're going to do what we can to cut this down to size," he later added.

"I don't know how they will collect the money," Smith said. "The defendants here are destitute." 

The plaintiffs were supported by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, which assembled and funded a large team of lawyers ahead of the trial.

In a statement, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the group behind the lawsuit, said, "We are committed to ensuring our plaintiffs can collect on these judgments — and that the defendants cannot escape liability."

Both attorneys for the plaintiffs announced they would re-try the federal conspiracy charges — and again seek to prove the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence under federal law.

"I think the jurors were anxious to get home," Kaplan said, alluding to the Thanksgiving holiday. "I think a different jury with more time is going to be convinced that not only was there conspiracy under state law, but that there was conspiracy under federal law." 

"I guess we'll have round two on the first two claims," Koleneich conceded to reporters.

The jury, which was made up of four women and seven men, deliberated for three days after hearing from 36 witnesses over nearly four weeks of testimony. 

Judge Norman K. Moon reiterated that the jurors will remain anonymous after the trial and have been ordered not to disclose their identities to anyone else without the court's approval. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated and the headline corrected to reflect the total amount of damages awarded.

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