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A jury ruled on Tuesday that a number of prominent white supremacists and associated organizations were liable for damages from the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
According to the jury, the plaintiffs in the case — counterprotesters and town residents seeking damages for the physical and emotional injuries caused at the protest — proved that the defendants, including a number of prominent white nationalists, violated a Virginia conspiracy law in advance of the event.
Evidence entered in the trial included social media posts, text messages and online chats between the event’s organizers. Among the defendants were rally organizer Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, who is thought to have coined the term “alt-right.”
The jury in the civil trial known as Sines v. Kessler heard testimony for four weeks and took three days to deliberate, eventually awarding more than $26 million in damages to the plaintiffs. It was a partial verdict, however, as jurors could not agree whether the organizers were guilty of the federal charge of conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence, which is a criminal offense according to a rarely used statute known as the KKK Act of 1871.
Because it was a civil case and not criminal, the jury needed only a “preponderance of evidence” to find the plaintiffs liable.
Integrity First for America, the civil rights nonprofit that brought the case, celebrated the ruling.
“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hate won’t go unanswered,” the organization said in a statement. “And at a moment of rising extremism, major threats to our democracy, and far too little justice, the case has provided a model of accountability.”
The “Unite the Right” rally was held on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, to oppose the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. White supremacists attending the rally marched through the town carrying tiki torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
During the violence that ensued, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd, killing civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others, including four of the nine plaintiffs. Fields, a white supremacist, was convicted of murder in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.
During the trial, there was continued use of racial slurs and hate speech, with defendant Michael Hill pledging during testimony that he was “a white supremacist, a racist, an antisemite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe, and any other sort of ‘phobe’ that benefits my people, so help me God!’”
“There was a great deal of overt antisemitism and adulation of the Third Reich throughout the evidence I looked at,” Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt said in testimony earlier this month, adding, “Very few things surprise me, but I was taken aback.”
The Lee statue that helped motivate the rally was removed in July, and another statue of Lee was removed from Virginia's capital city, Richmond, in September.