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Jury in Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ trial awards plaintiffs $25M in damages

Nine plaintiffs injured in the deadly 2017 rally in Virginia alleged that a group of white nationalists and white supremacist organizations conspired to commit the violence.
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Nine people injured during the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, are entitled to more than $25 million in financial compensation, a jury declared Tuesday in reaching a partial verdict. But it could not agree on the most serious claims that the defendants — about two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis and key organizers — engaged in a conspiracy to commit violence under federal law.

The jury of 11 deliberated for more than three days following four weeks of testimony in the civil trial in a federal court in Charlottesville. The plaintiffs, all from Charlottesville, described broken bones, the bloodshed and emotional trauma resulting from the mayhem. The defendants, some self-described racists and white nationalists, argued they were exercising their First Amendment rights in organizing and participating in the rally.

The case, known as Sines v. Kessler, was the first major lawsuit in years to be tried under the so-called Ku Klux Klan Act, a rarely used federal law codified after the Civil War. It was installed to diminish the power of white supremacists and protect African Americans, prohibiting discrimination in voting and other rights.

In making its decision, the jury had to find that the defendants, who include Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally, and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who coined the term "alt-right," entered into a conspiracy to commit violence. But the jury was deadlocked in the first two claims of a federal race-based "conspiracy to interfere with civil rights" and "action for neglect to prevent."

The jury also agreed on a range of punitive damages on the other claims, including assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, awarding more than $25 million to the plaintiffs.

On the claim that the defendants violated Virginia's civil conspiracy law, the jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages against all 12 individual defendants, including Kessler and Spencer, and $1 million against five white nationalist organizations.

Clashes at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.
Clashes at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Among the evidence were text messages, social media posts and conversations on Discord, an online chat platform, in which organizers discussed and meticulously coordinated the two-day event, which was held in response to Charlottesville's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The protest turned deadly when James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man who revered Adolf Hitler, rammed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist. Dozens were also injured in the car attack, including four of the plaintiffs.

Fields, who is serving a life sentence, was named as a defendant in the suit. The jury agreed he must pay $12 million in punitive damages in connection with the attack.

The trial included explicit audio of some of the defendants' use of antisemitic and racial slurs in conversations, which Kessler testified were words often used to be provocative. Jurors also heard messages packed with "insider language and codes" that expert witnesses said white nationalists use to incite participants in the "alt-right" movement.

Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, had asked jurors to consider awarding millions of dollars in punitive damages: from $7 million to $10 million for those physically harmed and $3 million to $5 million for emotional pain.

The suit is funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization, which lauded the jury's decision despite its partial verdict. The plaintiff's attorneys said they intend to get the first two claims retried since it ended in a hung jury, although they are largely satisfied with the outcome.

"We feel that justice was served today," co-lead attorney Karen Dunn told reporters. "There's going to be accountability for people who did this."

"I think this verdict today is a message that this country doesn't tolerate violence based on racial and religious hatred in any form," Kaplan said, adding they are not disappointed.

"Everyone wanted to get home for Thanksgiving, we understand. As do we," she said.

Randolph McLaughlin, a professor at the Haub School of Law at Pace University, who successfully used the Ku Klux Klan Act in a civil trial in Tennessee in the 1980s, said that for plaintiffs to win on the first two claims, it was imperative that the evidence showed at least some of the defendants had an agreement to engage in a racially motivated conspiracy and plan illegal acts. But during the trial, some of the defendants denied that was the case and that they barely knew one another, which may have swayed some of the jurors.

The long-delayed civil trial in Charlottesville unfolded as high-profile criminal trials in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Brunswick, Georgia, also grabbed national attention, feeding into larger conversations and politicized rhetoric regarding extremism and racial injustice.

During the trial, Spencer tried to distance himself from the rally, telling the jury he had no part in its planning despite being tied to a tiki torch demonstration the night before the event in which people shouted "Jews will not replace us" ­on the University of Virginia campus.

At a hearing last year related to the trial, Spencer said the suit had been "financially crippling" and he was "in a very difficult situation in terms of getting funds."

The amount awarded the plaintiffs is "huge," McLaughlin said, and many of the defendants are "sure to lose a lot" as a result of the trial. The financial damages may have a negative effect on white nationalist groups and their supporters when trying to organize, recruit or hold similar events, he added.

Defendants in these types of cases don't typically have deep pockets, so it's not necessarily about the money, McLaughlin said.

"You’re not suing to make a buck. You're suing to bankrupt them," he added, but "a $25 million award sends a strong message that gun-toting Klansmen can't ignore."

Gary Grumbach reported from Charlottesville and Erik Ortiz from New York.