From HCR: In Virginia today, a jury decided that the leaders of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 violated state law by conspiring before the event “to intimidate, harass or harm.” The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, five women and four men, including four people injured when James Fields rammed his car into protesters and killed 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer.
The plaintiffs sued five white nationalist organizations and 12 individual defendants, including prominent white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell, (known as the “Crying Nazi),” for engaging in a conspiracy to harm others. Over three weeks, the plaintiffs produced evidence that the defendants had talked of hitting protesters with cars at a party in Spencer’s apartment—known as the “Fash Loft” (short for fascist)—before the riot.
In their brief defense—their lawyers rested after a day and a half—the defendants tried to blame the deadly outcome of the riot on Fields alone and claimed their pre-event planning was just chatter amongst people who did not even know each other. Their talk of killing was just, as Spencer testified, “very juvenile and silly.” They said that they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights, that they acted in self defense, that the police should have kept the protesters apart, and that none of them knew Fields.
But the judge explained to the jury that a conspiracy did not require that the defendants committed violence themselves or even knew each other. It required only that they had the same goal and could foresee that violence would occur. Since it was a civil and not a criminal trial, they needed only to find “a preponderance of the evidence,” rather than guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in criminal trials.
The jury awarded the plaintiffs $26 million in damages. As Dahlia Lithwick noted in an article in Slate.com , this is no small thing, even though the defendants are unlikely to be able to pay. Fields is in prison for life for killing Heyer; Cantwell is serving a prison term for threatening to rape a man’s wife in front of their children unless the man gave Cantwell information he wanted about someone else. Spencer is also broke; his wife accused him of violent abuse before she left him. As Lithwick put it: “This isn’t about squeezing blood from a stone. It’s about widespread agreement that the stone sucks.”