The civil trial over the deadly 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in a split verdict Tuesday, with jurors failing to reach agreement on a federal conspiracy charge but awarding more than $25 million to the plaintiffs in combined damages.

Coming after a third day of deliberations, the decision by the seven white and four Black jurors showed the jurors agreed that the defendants violated a Virginia state conspiracy law, but not a federal one. The defense argument that this trial was a referendum about free speech rights was rejected.

Jurors in the case of state conspiration awarded $500,000 to several defendants, and $1,000,000 each against several organisations. The jurors did limit the amount of compensatory damages that plaintiffs could receive for their state conspiracy claim to $1.

The jury found that plaintiffs’ lawyers had proven a claim of racial or religious violence under a Virginia law. The panel awarded two plaintiffs $250,000 each in compensatory damages and $200,000 each in punitive damages, to be paid by several defendants. 

The jury also imposed $12 million in punitive damages against James Alex Fields, who drove a car into the Charlottesville crowd, killing Heather Heyer. He had been convicted in the past of murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The case represented the latest in a decades-old strategy of using civil lawsuits to hobble hate groups by attacking their finances. The jury awarded a large sum, but it wasn’t clear if the defendants were able to pay.

The decision came after jurors sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon Monday morning saying they had been unable to reach unanimous decisions on whether the plaintiffs had proven the first three of six claims by a preponderance of the evidence. Those included allegations the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence, knew about a conspiracy and failed to stop it, and were part of a civil conspiracy under Virginia law.

“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered. Amy Spitalnick is the executive director at Integrity First for America. This organization organized the civil case.

The case focused on two days in August days four years ago when hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Clean-cut white men marched with lit tiki torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” There were clashes between white supremacists, counter-protesters and the police.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clash with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. After clashes with anti-fascist protesters and police the rally was declared an unlawful gathering and people were forced out of Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed.

The groundbreaking lawsuit was filed shortly after the rally by Charlottesville residents who said they had been physically or mentally injured by violence. Nine plaintiffs, including a minister, students and other Charlottesville residents, This case was pursued and supported by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

The defendants represent a “who’s who” of the extremist right. They include Richard Spencer, former leader of the white supremacist and nationalist movement called the “alt-right,” Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster who is serving a prison sentence for extortion, and white nationalist Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer.

White nationalist Richard Spencer (center) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police as they attempted to hold a rally in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was slated to be removed.

Also accused was Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who founded the Group Identity Evropa. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the evidence proved that the defendants had planned for violence.

The defendants, 24 individuals and organizations, acknowledged espousing racist and antisemitic views but denied they had conspired.

The financial ruin of white supremacists is:White supremacist leaders have suffered from the legal action against Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally.

In court, Neo-Nazi propaganda:Defendant makes closing arguments in Charlottesville white supremacist trial using neo Nazi propaganda

A conspiracy is proved

The plaintiffs brought the case to trial under the federal Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era statute that allows individuals to sue when violent conspiracies deprive them of their constitutional rights. After Klan violence stopped newly-freed slaves exercising their right to be citizens, the law was passed.

The plaintiffs had to prove not only that their injuries resulted from the Unite the Right rally, but that the defendants had been involved in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence that caused those injuries. 

To do so, they relied on a trove of evidence, including hundreds of text messages among the defendants and hundreds of thousands of leaked communications from Discord, a messaging platform that many of the organizers used leading up to the event.

Throughout the trial, the defendants remained unapologetic about their racist beliefs. Some used the courtroom as a stage to praise infamous Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or mock the Holocaust. During closing arguments, a defense lawyer played a neoNazi recruiting video. 

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' during the 'Unite the Right' rally Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

They sought to separate themselves from central planning and claimed that the rally was not intended to become violent. In his instructions to jurors about the conspiracy claim, Moon said they must agree only that a preponderance of evidence showed “there was a mutual understanding, either spoken or unspoken, between the conspirators to commit at least one unlawful act.”

Spencer expressed regret for the events and for Heyer’s death. He and Cantwell tried to cast the trial as a referendum on First Amendment rights. Moon, who presided over trial over more than three weeks, cut off those arguments and admonished the defendants to stick to the facts of the case.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs produced evidence designed to show that the defendants conspired in planning the rally, knew it would descend into violence and celebrated when it did.

Attorneys showed video clips of defendants talking about how successful the rally was. Other evidence included communications and social media posts from the defendants talking about what equipment they would bring to Charlottesville and signaling they might hurt anyone who showed up to oppose them.

“We are raising an army my liege, for free speech, but for the cracking of skulls if it comes to it,” read one of the text messages between co-defendants Kessler and Spencer.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Bloch noted a Facebook post in which Cantwell wrote: “if you think the alt-right is insignificant you might want to ask the bleeding commie filth we sent to the morgue and hospitals how insignificant we are.”

During cross-examination, Bloch asked Cantwell, “When you said the ‘bleeding commie filth we sent to the morgue,’ you meant Heather Heyer?”

“Yeah,” Cantwell responded.

Extremists can be stopped legally 

This lawsuit is part of a long tradition that civil courts have used to destroy hate and white supremacist groups. Spencer said before the trial that the case had been financially crippling.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed lawsuits against several Klan chapters in the 1980s and 1990s on behalf of victims who were intimidated or threatened. The lawsuits caused those chapters to file for bankruptcy or shut down. 

The plaintiffs previously won default judgments against seven of the 24 defendants. 

The court has issued five-figure fines against three other defendants for failing to produce evidence or show up for court hearings or depositions, court files show.

Source: USAToday.com

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