Jury awards $26M in damages for Unite the Right violence
White nationalist Richard Spencer speaks at the University of Florida on Oct. 19, 2017 in Gainesville, Fla.
| November 23, 2021 5:00 PM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A jury ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages Tuesday over the violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
After a nearly monthlong civil trial, the jury in U.S. District Court deadlocked on two key claims but found the white nationalists liable on four other claims in the lawsuit filed by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan said the plaintiffs' lawyers plan to refile the suit so a new jury can decide the two deadlocked claims. She called the amount of damages awarded from the other counts "eye opening."
"That sends a loud message," Kaplan said.
The verdict, though mixed, is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organizations accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews and others in a meticulously planned conspiracy.
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to appeal, saying the "entire theory of that verdict is fundamentally flawed."
He said plaintiffs' attorneys made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and other defendants.
"It was activism by means of lawsuits, and that is absolutely outrageous," he said. "I'm doing fine right now because I had kind of accepted in my heart the worst that could happen. I had hope, of course, but I'm not terribly surprised or crestfallen."
Jurors were unable to reach unanimous verdicts on two pivotal claims based on a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan Act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.
Under those claims, the plaintiffs asked the jury to find that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and that they knew about the conspiracy but failed to stop it from being carried out. Jurors could not agree on those claims.
The jury did find the defendants liable under a Virginia state law conspiracy claim and awarded $11 million in damages to the plaintiffs under that claim. Jurors also found five of the main organizers of the rally liable under a claim that alleged they subjected two of the plaintiffs to intimidation, harassment or violence that was motivated by racial, religious or ethnic animosity. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $1.5 million in damages on that claim.
The final two claims were made against James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed Hitler admirer who intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The jury found Fields, who is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes, liable on an assault or battery claim and awarded six plaintiffs just under $6.8 million in damages. The jury awarded the same plaintiffs nearly $6.7 million on a claim that Fields intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them.
Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, said the verdict "sends a very clear message that hate speech put into action has consequences."
"The defendants were convicted with their own words that showed months of planning went into the rally. This was not a spontaneous event," said Bro, who was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted "Jews will not replace us," surrounded counterprotesters and threw tiki torches at them.
Then-President Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, saying there were " very fine people on both sides. "
The lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville, accused some of the country's most well-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally's main organizer; Spencer, who coined the term "alt-right" to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the "crying Nazi" for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counterdemonstrators.
Joshua Smith, an attorney for defendants Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party, said he will ask the court to reduce the punitive damages awards against his clients. But he described the verdict as a "big win" for his clients due to the relatively modest amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury.
The trial featured emotional testimony from people struck by Fields' car or who witnessed the attacks as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.
Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields' car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend Heyer had been killed.
"I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people that were there. It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere. I was terrified," said Blair, who became tearful during her testimony.
During their testimony, some of the defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed one another and the anti-fascist political movement known as antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend.
In closing arguments to the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs had not proved that they conspired to commit violence at the rally.
Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.