Closing arguments underway in civil suit over deadly “Unite the Right” rally

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Jurors are hearing closing arguments Thursday in the federal civil trial for White nationalists and neo-Nazis who organized the deadly “Unite the Right” rally and tiki-torch march in August 2017.

The three-week trial showcased an extensive paper trail left behind by defendants accused of engaging in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. The two dozen defendants include notorious leaders of established hate groups.  

The plaintiffs, made up of current and former Charlottesville residents — including former University of Virginia students — are seeking compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional injuries suffered during the fatal August weekend and thereafter. 

The lawsuit is centered around the actions of James Alex Fields, Jr., now serving a life sentence for deliberately plowing his car into a crowd of people, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens of others, including four plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

U.S District Judge Norman Moon is allowing two and a half hours for closing arguments for the plaintiffs’ attorneys and three and a half hours for the defendants, including those representing themselves.

The jury will have to determine if each defendant should be liable for damage against a standard of a “preponderance of evidence,” that is, whether the plaintiffs’ claims are likely to be true, since this is a civil trial. This is a lower bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal convictions.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have weaved together a series of messages, social media posts and even podcasts to make their case here, even presenting evidence showing defendants bragging about violence — including video of white supremacist Christopher Cantwell displaying several guns he had brought with him to the rally. Earlier this year, Cantwell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery.

Attorneys argued this week that defendants had instructed participants to mislead law enforcement, with neo-Nazi Jason Kessler telling followers in a July Facebook post, “If police ask you how many people we have coming, don’t tell them.” 

The defendants blamed each other throughout the trial, taking swipes at one another and alleging they were not friends who planned the deadly violence together. Many touted their First Amendment right to protest during cross examination.

Both leader of the alt-right movement Richard Spencer, and neo-Nazi podcast personality Christopher Cantwell are defending themselves. 

On occasion, defendants have been doxing — or publicly uncovering personal information about a private citizen – as they’ve cross-examined plaintiffs on the stand, which legal experts have called a dangerous precedent.  

The civil rights organization — Integrity First for America — supporting the nine plaintiffs is relying on a 150-year-old statute called the Ku Klux Klan Act to try to hold defendants accountable. It was enacted in 1871 and designed to protect African Americans following racial violence and terrorism in South Carolina, but the Reconstruction-era law still has real utility today – and it could also implicate former President Trump, Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani and others who have been accused of inspiring violence, including racially motivated violence, ahead of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Capitol Police and lawmakers are relying on the very same statute to bring their own lawsuits to bear following January 6.”

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