Jury awards $26 million in damages for Unite the Right movie violence

Jury awards $26 million in damages for Unite the Right movie violence

Charlottesville, Virginia A jury ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages Tuesday for the violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

After a civil trial that lasted nearly a month, the jury in the U.S. District Court deadlocked on two main claims, but found white nationalists responsible for four other claims in the lawsuit brought by nine people who sustained physical or psychological injuries during two days of demonstrations.

Attorney Roberta Kaplan said the plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to redraft the lawsuit so that a new jury can rule on the two defaulting lawsuits. She described the amount of compensation awarded for the other charges as “eye-opening”.

“This sends a loud message,” Kaplan said.

Although the verdict is mixed, it is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, especially to the scores of individuals and organizations accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews, and others in a meticulously planned plot.

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White Nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to appeal, saying “the entire theory of this ruling is fundamentally flawed.”

He said the plaintiffs’ lawyers made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and the other defendants.

“It was a litigation activity, which is very disgraceful,” he said. “I’m fine now because I kind of accepted in my heart the worst that could happen. I had hope, of course, but I’m not terribly startled or collapsed.”

The 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 protect freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan contains a rarely used clause that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

Under these allegations, prosecutors asked the jury to find that the defendants were involved in a plot to commit racially motivated violence and that they knew of the plot but failed to prevent its execution. Jurors can’t agree on those allegations.

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The jury found the defendants liable under a conspiracy suit in Virginia law and awarded $11 million in damages to the plaintiffs under that allegation. The jurors also found five of the main organizers of the demonstration liable under an allegation that they had subjected two plaintiffs to intimidation, harassment or violence motivated by racial, religious or ethnic hostility. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $1.5 million in damages for that claim.

The last two allegations were made against James Alex Fields, Jr., a fan of Hitler who deliberately drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others. A jury found Fields, who is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes, responsible for the assault or battery lawsuit and sentenced six plaintiffs to less than $6.8 million in damages. The jury awarded the same plaintiffs nearly $6.7 million alleging that Fields intentionally caused them emotional distress.

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Heyer’s mother, Susan Brough, said the ruling “sends a very clear message that putting hate speech into practice has consequences.”

“The defendants were convicted in their own words which showed months of planning went into the gathering. This was not a spontaneous event,” said Bro, who was not a plaintiff in the suit.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for a Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During a rally on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” surrounded protesters and threw tiki torches at them.

Then-President Donald Trump sparked a political storm when he failed to immediately condemn white nationalists, saying that there were “very good people on both sides.”

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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 notorious white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer. Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loose group of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others; and Christopher Cantwell, the white supremacist known as a “crying Nazi” for posting a video crying when a warrant was issued for his arrest for assaulting protesters with pepper spray against hostile protesters.

Joshua Smith, attorney for the defendants Matthew Hempach and Matthew Barrott and the far-right Traditional Labor Party, said he will ask the court to reduce punitive damages against his clients under US Supreme Court precedent that places limits on the amount of greater punitive damages. It could be compensatory damages. Smith described the verdict as a “big win” for his clients due to the relatively modest amount of damages awarded by the jury.

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The trial included emotional testimonies from people who had been hit by Fields’ car or who witnessed the attacks as well as prosecutors who had been beaten or racially ridiculed.

Melissa Blair, who was pushed off the road when Fields’ car crashed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend Heyer had been murdered.

I was disoriented. I was scared. I was worried for everyone in there. It was a complete horror scene. There was blood everywhere. “I was terrified,” said Blair, who broke down in tears as she testified.

During their testimony, some of the defendants used racist nicknames and defiantly expressed support for white supremacy. They also blamed each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as Antifa for the violence that broke out over the weekend.

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In closing arguments for the jury, the defendants and their attorneys tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs did not prove that they conspired to commit violence at the rally.

Prior to trial, Judge Norman Moon issued judgments in absentia against seven other defendants who refused to respond to the suit. The court will decide compensation against these defendants.

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Mike Kunzelman, Associated Press reporter, contributed from College Park, Maryland. Sarah Rankin, an Associated Press reporter, contributed from Richmond.

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This story has been corrected to show that the total damages exceeded $26 million.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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