CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A group of white nationalists and far-right organizations were found liable Tuesday for $26 million in damages tied to the mayhem at the Unite the Right rally in 2017.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, Virginia, found that prominent alt-right leaders, including Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell, should pay for the demonstrations that exploded into a horrific riot injuring dozens of counterprotesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The verdict came after a month-long trial over civil claims brought by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of mayhem. They argued the Unite the Right violence was not spontaneous, but instead the culmination of a plot to encourage attacks on Black people, Jews and others.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represented the plaintiffs, called the jury award “eye opening.”
“That sends a loud message,” she said.
The jury was deadlocked on two claims involving a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan Act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.
Kaplan vowed to seek a new trial on those claims.
“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hate won’t go unanswered,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of civil rights group Integrity First for America, which funded the lawsuit. “There will be accountability.”
The defense had argued that they were merely exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. The jury rejected that theory.
Spencer vowed to appeal, saying the “entire theory of that verdict is fundamentally flawed.”
The civil case stems from the Aug. 11-12, 2017, rally in which white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Chanting “Jews will not replace us” and carrying tiki torches, they lashed out at counterprotesters.
The following day, avowed white nationalist James Alex Fields, who is now serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes, drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer. Another 35 people were injured.
The trial revealed that white nationalists exchanged numerous messages via chat rooms, texts and social media that plaintiffs attorneys introduced as evidence of conspiracy.
The jury found the defendants liable under a Virginia state law conspiracy claim and awarded $11 million. Jurors also found five of the main organizers of the rally liable under a claim involving racially motivated harassment, awarding $1.5 million in damages.
The final two claims were made against Fields, an avowed Adolf Hitler admirer. He was held liable for a total of $13.5 million for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.