Jurors on Tuesday handed down a mixed but sweeping victory for the plaintiffs in a sprawling suit against the organisers of the disastrous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a horde of white supremacists, Nazis, and other neo-fascists descended on the town, resulting in violent rioting and a terroristic car attack that killed one and wounded scores of others.
The nine plaintiffs in Sines v. Kessler, represented by a group called Integrity First for America, all suffered physical or psychological damages as a direct result of Unite the Right. They intended to prove that the rally’s organisers engaged in a conspiracy to cause violence based on racial animus, citing an 1871 law called the Ku Klux Klan Act. The 24 co-defendants, a who’s who of the nation’s most prominent bigots ranging from white supremacist activist Richard Spencer and Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin to organisations like the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the League of the South, instead insisted the violence was caused by anti-fascists and a weak police response. The four-week case was built on a mountain of evidence compiled against the defendants, many of whom were attention-hungry provocateurs or self-styled digital influencers who had largely enjoyed impunity from tech companies until the August 2017 rally predictably descended into brutality. The evidence ranged from Discord chats and emails to phone logs and recorded livestreams showing the co-defendants’ extensive preparations for, and subsequent celebration of, the violence.
After three days of deliberation, jurors on Tuesday said they were deadlocked on the two federal claims in the suit brought under the KKK Act. The first of which was the core claim of a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence, and the second of which involved whether the co-defendants had knowledge of such a conspiracy and failed to stop it. However, the jurors ruled against the defendants on four other counts. The jury found that every one of the defendants violated a Virginia state civil conspiracy law, while some of them violated an additional state law prohibiting harassment or violence based on ethnicity, religion, or race. The remaining two claims pertained solely to Alex James Fields Jr., the white supremacist serving multiple life sentences for ramming a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing activist Heather Heyer and wounding countless others.
All told, this means that all of the defendants have been found liable on at least one claim, with the jury awarding over $US25 ($35) million in damages. In doing so, the court has verified that the bigoted organisers of Unite the Right participated in an illegal conspiracy.
On the first Virginia state conspiracy claim, the jury awarded $US500,000 ($692,650) in punitive damages against all 12 individual defendants (including rally permit holder Jason Kessler, Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, former NSM commander Jeff Schoep, and imprisoned neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell) as well as $US1 ($1) million in damages against five white nationalist organisations (Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party, NSM, Vanguard America, League of the South, and Identity Evropa). That’s a total of $US11 ($15) million.
On the second state claim relating to harassment and violence, five defendants (Kessler, Spencer, neo-Nazi Elliot Kline, Daily Stormer contributor Robert “Azzmador” Ray, and Cantwell) are liable for $US200,000 ($277,060) each in punitive damages, and two plaintiffs (Natalie Romero and Devin Willis) have been awarded a total of $US500,000 ($692,650) in compensatory damages.
On claims five and six, Fields is liable for a total of around $US1 ($1).5 million in compensatory and $US12 ($17) million in punitive damages.
Seven additional defendants, including Anglin and far-right umbrella group the Nationalist Front, had already been hit with default judgments by the court for grounds like failure to appear or destruction of evidence. According to ABC News, the court will decide those damages separately.
It’s possible that some of the punitive damages may be reduced. On the Virginia state conspiracy claim, CNN noted, the plaintiffs were awarded only nominal compensatory damages. In recent decades, precedent including a 2003 Supreme Court ruling has generally frowned on a high ratio of punitive to compensatory damages.
However, the fallout of the rally and the legal costs arising from the IFA suit, filed in 2017, have already been extremely damaging to many of the co-defendants. Spencer’s racist think tank, the National Policy Institute, is effectively defunct and he has referred to the case as “financially crippling.” Other groups, such as the NSM, have fallen into internal turmoil, while some like Identity Evropa and the TWP have splintered into successor groups or dissolved entirely. Tuesday’s verdict will likely mean the same for other defendants, as well as ensure some that have already gone under financially won’t recover.
“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability,” Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of IFA, told Gizmodo in a statement via email. “Over the court of this trial, our plaintiffs presented overwhelming evidence that the violence was no accident. We’re heartened that the jury agreed. These judgments underscore the major financial, legal, and operational consequences for violent hate — even beyond the significant impacts this case has already had.”
“And at a moment of rising extremism, major threats to our democracy, and far too little justice, this case has provided a model for accountability,” Spitalnick added. “This trial also allowed our plaintiffs to tell the full, horrific story of Unite the Right — and exposed the hateful, violent tactics at the core of how the white supremacist movement operates.”
Spitalnick added that IFA was grateful for the courage of the plaintiffs and was committed to ensuring the defendants cannot escape the damages.
One lawyer for the defence with a history of anti-Semitic remarks and allying with the far right, Josh Smith, called the verdict a win for his clients — Heimbach, the TWP, and TWP co-founder/former web admin Matthew Parrott.
“It’s a politically charged situation. It’s going to be hard to get 11 people to agree,” Smith told CNN. “I consider a hung jury to be a win, considering a disparity of resources.”
In a separate statement to media outlets, the plaintiffs wrote, “It has been a long four years since we first brought this case. Today, we can celebrate the jury’s verdict finally holding defendants like [Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell] accountable for what they did to us and to everyone else in the Charlottesville community who stood up against hate in August 2017.”
“Our single greatest hope is that today’s verdict will encourage others to feel safer raising our collective voices in the future to speak up for human dignity and against white supremacy,” they added.