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Charlottesville Rally Trial: What We’ve Learned as the Case Goes to the Jury

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After four weeks of testimony that highlighted some of the most hateful ideology coursing through the extreme right in the United States, lawyers presented their closing arguments on Thursday in the civil case stemming from the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Over the course of the trial, the nine plaintiffs testified about their struggles with the lingering injuries from that day. Four of them were hit by the car driven by James Fields Jr., a defendant who is already serving multiple life sentences for the attack, which killed Heather Heyer, a counterprotester.

The plaintiffs testified that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, including insomnia, the inability to concentrate, flashbacks and panic attacks. Several wept on the stand while reliving the car attack and the night before, when neo-Nazis carrying torches marched through the streets shouting racist slogans.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said on Thursday that in addition to compensation for their medical costs, each of the plaintiffs should be awarded between $3 million and $10 million in punitive damages.

The two dozen defendants, two of whom represented themselves, described Mr. Fields as a lone wolf and denied that the pile of social media posts discussing rally logistics amounted to a conspiracy. They also argued that their actions were protected under the First Amendment.

The heart of the case in U.S. District Court is whether the defendants engaged in a race-based violent conspiracy, which is illegal under an 1871 law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act that was designed to prevent vigilantes from denying newly freed slaves their civil rights.

The trial also highlighted how a mostly online movement of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers shifted to real-life violence. “The white supremacist movement saw an opportunity to get out of the shadows and to dominate the streets,” said Karen L. Dunn, one of two lawyers who spoke for the plaintiffs.

The jurors are scheduled to start considering the case on Friday. Here are key takeaways of what we learned from the trial.

The jury must decide if the defendants engaged in violent conspiracy.

Numerous defendants sought to have all the charges against them dismissed before the closing arguments, saying that the plaintiffs had failed to present any evidence.

Judge Norman K. Moon rejected their motions, arguing that there was enough evidence for the jury to weigh. He cited a text message from Christopher Cantwell, a Nazi podcaster who is serving 41 months in federal prison in a separate threats and extortion case, as one example. “I’m willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration,” Mr. Cantwell wrote, “Many in my audience would follow me there, but I want to coordinate and make sure it’s worth it to our cause.”

The text was to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who is another defendant. “It’s worth it, at least for me,” Mr. Spencer said.

A manic, expletive-filled rant by Mr. Spencer in which he said that minorities were meant to be dominated by people like him and that he would destroy Charlottesville featured heavily in the testimony. Mr. Spencer apologized for it, saying it was juvenile.

The defense argued it was protected by the First Amendment.

The defendants argued that if they engaged in violence it was only in self-defense, and that it was the police who were at fault by failing to separate the opposing groups of demonstrators.

Even while admitting that their political views were deplored by many, they said they were protected by the First Amendment. Both sides used video footage extensively.

Some of the defendants tried to paint the plaintiffs as at least sympathizers with violence fomented by Antifa, if not members themselves.

The half-dozen defense lawyers squarely blamed Mr. Fields for the violence, saying that he acted alone and that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that he had planned the attack with the other defendants.

They also tried to pass off some of their remarks as humor, which Peter Simi, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, said was a common tactic by adherents of the extreme right to try to camouflage their goal of sparking another Civil War to create a white homeland.

“What’s your favorite Holocaust joke?” Mr. Cantwell, who was acting as his own lawyer, asked Matthew Heimbach, the former leader of a neo-Nazi organization, on the witness stand. “My favorite?” said Mr. Heimbach, who went on to deny the Holocaust.

Understand the Charlottesville Rally Trial

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What happened in Charlottesville? On Aug. 12, 2017, there was a white supremacist rally, called  “Unite the Right,” in Charlottesville, Va., in protest against the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, The event saw participants clash with counterprotesters and culminated with the death of one woman.

Were there any criminal cases? Four white nationalists were sentenced to jail for beating a Black man. Several protesters and counterprotesters were convicted on various charges, including assault. James Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi, was sentenced to multiple life sentences in federal prison for killing Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd.

What is this civil case? This trial takes aim at the organizers of the rally with plaintiffs seeking damages for the injuries they sustained. Lawyers are relying on a federal law from 1871 designed to protect the rights of free slaves against the Ku Klux Klan.

Who are the plaintiffs? The nine plaintiffs include an ordained minister, a landscaper and several students. They are seeking damages for injuries, lost income and severe emotional distress.

Who is being sued? The defendants in the Charlottesville rally civil case are drawn from a range of white nationalist or neo-Nazi organizations, and include far-right figures like Richard B. Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell. They do not have a uniform defense.

Why does this case matter? The trial will revisit one of the most searing manifestations of how hatred and intolerance that festers online can spread onto the streets. The plaintiffs say they decided to act after there was no broader federal or state effort to hold the organizers accountable.

Defendants openly identified themselves as racists.

Some defendants brazenly acknowledged their animosity toward Black people, Jews and other minorities as well as their admiration for Adolf Hitler. The derogatory slurs they used to describe minorities cropped up in the testimony repeatedly.

Michael Hill, 69, president of the League of the South, an organization akin to the Ku Klux Klan, was asked to read part of a pledge that he had posted on the group’s website. “I pledge to be a white supremacist, racist, antisemite, homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe and any other sort of phobe that benefits my people, so help me God,” Mr. Hill read, avowing, “I still hold those views.”

Nathan Damigo, the former head of a white nationalist group called Identity Europa that rebranded itself as the American Identity Movement after Charlottesville, testified that he was a racist. When the lawyer questioning him pressed Mr. Damigo on the point, his lawyer, James Kolenich, objected. “He has already referred to himself as a racist,” Mr. Kolenich said.

Legally, a conspiracy does not require people to meet together.

Both the lawyers for the plaintiffs and the judge have stressed that in a civil case, meeting the legal standard for a conspiracy did not require a formal agreement between the parties or even that they knew one another. But the violence had to be foreseeable, the lawyers said, highlighting the many social media posts in which the organizers predicted violent clashes with antifa and other opponents.

Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the rally, wrote that he was building an army for the Battle of Charlottesville, for example, writing under a pseudonym that participants should not openly carry weapons. “I don’t want to scare antifa off from throwing the first punch, I want them to start something.”

The lawyers for the plaintiffs spent a considerable amount of time using phone records and leaked chat conversations about logistics for the rally on Discord, an online chat platform popular with gamers, to show the myriad connections between the main organizers.

The larger goal of the lawsuit is to deter other extremists.

To an extent, the lawsuit, organized by a nonprofit organization called Integrity First for America, has already achieved a goal of deterring extremism.

Many of the defendants have been kicked off social media platforms that had allowed them to attract followers and to raise money. Mr. Cantwell and Mr. Spencer represented themselves because they could not afford lawyers, they said. Some of the groups have disbanded entirely or tried to rebrand to avoid being tied to the violent events.

“A lot of guys disappeared, they did not want to be associated with that,” Dillon Hopper, a former Marine and commander of a white nationalist group called Vanguard America, said in a deposition. “We lost a lot of members after Charlottesville because a lot of guys got scared.”

Some of the leaders turned on each other in court. “When did you determine that I was a sociopathic narcissist?” Mr. Spencer asked Mr. Kessler. Mr. Kessler went on at some length, calling him slimy, inhuman, robotic and “despicable to everyone you came in contact with.”

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