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What to know about the civil trial over Charlottesville's deadly "Unite the Right" rally

Jury to decide "Unite the Right" civil case
Jury begins deliberations in "Unite the Right" civil case in Charlottesville 05:46

Jury deliberations are underway in the civil case involving notorious white nationalist and neo-Nazi leaders who organized the two-day "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one person killed and scores injured.

In August 2017, extremists chanting "Jews will not replace us!" encircled counter-protesters on the University of Virginia campus, wielding and in some cases throwing burning tiki torches as they marched. One of the participants, neo-Nazi and Hitler sympathizer James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car from Ohio to attend, and later plowed it through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.

Fields, a defendant in the lawsuit, is already serving multiple life sentences in prison for murder and hate crimes as a result of the car attack. The Virginia Court of Appeals denied an appeal from Fields on Thursday.

Police made very few arrests four years ago, according to an independent review of the events, with just a handful of far-right protesters and counter-protesters convicted on charges of assault or disorderly conduct.

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

In total, 14 individuals and 10 organizations are defendants in the case, including notorious leaders of long-established hate groups.

"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 Karen Dunn, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Here's where things stand.

The plaintiffs: "We sued the people who were responsible"

The chaos and violence that descended upon Charlottesville that weekend in August 2017, as hundreds protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was many things, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued Thursday, but it was not a joke.

"It is up to you to demonstrate loud and clear that contrary to what defendants would have you believe, none of this is funny and none of it is a joke," attorney for the plaintiffs Roberta Kaplan told the jury.

Three dozen witnesses testified, including experts on white supremacy tasked with decoding white supremacists' cryptic messages of violence, frequently masked by humor to grant members plausible deniability.

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017. Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS

Among the plaintiffs is UVA student Natalie Romero, who woke up in the hospital after the car attack to ask if she'd ever walk again. Romero testified that she suffers from panic attacks, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress. Her traumatic brain injury clouds memories and prompted her to take a medical leave from college.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have cited scores of messages exchanged by planners via text, email, podcast and a cache of leaked posts circulated on the gaming app Discord riddled with racial epithets. The nearly four-week trial showcased an extensive digital trail left behind on message boards ahead of the rally, with alt-right participants also describing the use of flag poles, shields and cars as weapons.

In one now notorious message, Charlottesville resident and rally organizer Jason Kessler wrote to white nationalist leader Richard 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."

"This is not a hypothetical thing," plaintiffs' attorney Karen Dunn told the jury Thursday. "Natalie Romero actually had her skull fractured."

The plaintiffs are supported by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, which has assembled and funded a large team of lawyers determined to prove that the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence.

"When counter-protesters were in their way, the defendants beat them with torches," Dunn said. "They plowed through them using their bodies. On Market Street, they charged through people with shields. And finally, they plowed through people with a car."

Kaplan first put a number on compensatory damages for their physical and emotional trauma Thursday. Plaintiffs hit during Fields' car attack are seeking $7 million to $10 million, while plaintiffs injured in other events that weekend have asked for $3 million to $5 million.

Plaintiffs' lawyers did not specify a dollar amount for punitive damages, which are imposed to make an example out of the offending party and to deter others from repeating their actions.

Instead, Kaplan asked the jury, "What would it take to make sure that defendants and their co-conspirators never ever do anything like this ever again?"

The defense: There's no conspiracy here

Defendants chose to forgo a uniform argument, instead offering a piecemeal defense that often led to a blame game and allegations that they were not friends who planned the deadly violence. Many touted their First Amendment right to protest, and cast violence as "self-defense" while dismissing racist comments as "jokes."

Attorney for lead organizer Jason Kessler, James Kolenich, said Thursday that despite proving defendants made "ridiculous" and "offensive" comments, plaintiffs have not proven individuals and organizations conspired to commit the racially motivated violence.

"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 told the jury.

"I want you to say: 'So what?'"

Kolenich argued that other defendants could not have foreseen what James Fields did.

Alt-right leader Richard Spencer and neo-Nazi podcast personality Christopher Cantwell represented themselves.

Spencer called the trial a "character assassination," adding that he did not participate in chat groups employed by organizers to plan the rally.

He then recalled former President Donald Trump's controversial insistence that there were "very fine people on both sides" after the violent weekend clash between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators.

U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon fired back at the defendant, noting that the president's comments were not submitted as evidence. "We can't go back to law school here. You have to follow the rules,'' the judge said.

Ignoring the judge's orders, Spencer added, "There were some bad people on both sides."

David Campbell, the attorney for James Fields, told jurors that while there is "no doubt" that Fields committed racially motivated violence, he acted as a "lone wolf" outside of any conspiracy.

Among the two dozen defendants, a slew of failures to comply with court orders, the destruction of materials requested in discovery, and overall uncooperative behavior resulted in court sanctions, fines and default judgments against several of the defendants.

Defendant Robert Warren Ray of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website with deep links to hate groups, ignored the proceedings altogether, while defendant Jeff Schoep, former leader of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, claimed his cellphone accidentally dropped into the toilet, destroying potential evidence.

An old statute finds new purpose

The plaintiffs' attorneys are using a combination of modern technology and a 150-year-old Reconstruction-era statute to pursue organizers of the deadly weekend rally.

The Enforcement Act of 1871, referred to colloquially as the Ku Klux Klan Act, was originally enacted to protect freed slaves in the South by outlawing movement "in disguise on the highway… for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws."

But 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 unearthed 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.

"The KKK Act is sadly having a renaissance or resurgence in the year 2021 because we're living in a moment where violent extremism, violent white supremacy is also having a resurgence," Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First America, told CBS News. "But it should also be a reminder that we have to take action."

Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice — including the FBI — have called domestic violent extremism the greatest current threat to the U.S. homeland. Activists in Charlottesville have repeatedly called the 2017 rally a "precursor" to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

President Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign by featuring video from Charlottesville, citing it as the reason he ran for president.

Jury deliberations begin

The jury gathered Friday morning to receive instructions from the judge. Members of the jury are tasked with determining if each defendant should be held responsible against a standard of a "preponderance of evidence," that is, whether the plaintiffs' claims are likely to be true, since this is a civil trial. This is a lower bar than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for criminal convictions.

The 47 pages of jury instructions issued by Judge Moon note that while plaintiffs must prove the existence of a conspiracy of two or more people who were motivated "by animus against Black or Jewish individuals," plaintiffs do not have to prove any sort of "formal agreement" among the defendants.

On Friday, one of the 12 jurors was "excused for good cause" from the case after members of their family were possibly exposed to COVID-19. There are no alternate jurors in civil cases, which can proceed with as few as six jurors. 

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