Opening Statements Begin in Charlottesville Rally Trial

Opening Statements Begin in Charlottesville Rally
Trial 1

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages from the far-right organizers of a violent rally in 2017, accusing them of violating the civil rights of minorities by plotting violence.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As a series of videos depicting a violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., were played in court on Thursday, Elizabeth Sines reached for a tissue to wipe away her tears. Racist chants could be heard in the footage of a torch-lit march, along with the chilling screams after one rallygoer drove his car into a stunned crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman.

Ms. Sines, who took some of the videos, was among the nine plaintiffs who appeared in court for the first time as opening statements began in the civil case stemming from that far-right rally in August 2017. The plaintiffs, sitting behind their lawyers, faced two rows of defendants — white nationalists and neo-Nazis — and their lawyers across the courtroom.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages from the main organizers of the Charlottesville rally, accusing them of violating the civil rights of minorities by plotting violence against them beforehand, which is illegal under a law dating from the Civil War era.

Roberta Kaplan, one of two lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, said they had waited four long years for their moment in court. “No matter what they do and no matter how far from Charlottesville they go, they continue to carry with them the pain and trauma that they experienced during those two days,” she said. “The defendants planned for violence, executed the violence and then celebrated the violence.”

The lawsuit in federal court against some 20 organizers of the march, delayed repeatedly by the coronavirus pandemic, will examine the more public emergence of a far-right movement that once stayed mostly online and out of sight. The events in Charlottesville further divided the nation after President Donald J. Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

For roughly the first two hours of the trial, the plaintiffs’ lawyers displayed graphic videos, chat postings and emails meant to prove their contention that the organizers planned violence and then executed it. The lawyers tried to show the terror their clients felt that day in the wall of helter-skelter sound that boomed across the courtroom with each video.

“They came prepared to commit violence,” said Karen L. Dunn, the other main lawyer for the plaintiffs, showing pictures of the defendants in black shirts or Nazi-like attire. “They wore riot gear. They marched in formation. They carried shields they used to break through the counterprotesters, and they carried flags they used as weapons.”

The defendants include some of the most notorious white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers in the country.

All seven of those who spoke for the defense, including five lawyers and two of the defendants who represented themselves, denied that there was any conspiracy to commit violence, arguing repeatedly that the case was an issue of free speech.

They noted that the organizers had obtained a legal permit for the rally and that others were responsible for any violence. Some blamed it on leftist movements like antifa, and others on a lack of police planning.

“In many cases, the people involved in this are not likable people,” said James E. Kolenich, a lawyer who is defending Jason Kessler, an organizer of the rally, and two others. “But that, ladies and gentlemen, is 100 percent legally irrelevant.” It was a theme returned to repeatedly by the defense.

Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Richard B. Spencer, another defendant, tried to distance himself from the others on Thursday, saying he had been an invited speaker. He displayed a tweet that he had sent telling far-right adherents to leave town after the police declared the rally an illegal gathering.

The plaintiffs used statements from Mr. Spencer in the immediate aftermath of the rally to try to show that he gloated about the violence, including a profanity-laced rant in which he suggested that he and others like him were meant to dominate the world. They also quoted him as saying, “We’ve entered a world of political violence and I don’t think anything’s going to be the same.”

Another of the defendants, Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcaster, is already in jail over threats to a fellow member of the far right in a separate dispute. In court on Thursday, he said he did not believe that all races were equal and described himself as a performance artist deserving of the same protections as a pornographer or a rapper.

The nine plaintiffs represent a mix of residents from the city. Ms. Sines, 27, who is white and was a law student when she witnessed the events, is now a practicing lawyer. Marcus Martin, 31, a Black landscaper, suffered a severely broken leg, among other injuries. The car attack cracked the skull of Natalie Romero, 24, a Colombian American who was then an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. At least four people injured in the attack are among the plaintiffs.

“Natalie is going to tell you that every day that she wakes up and she looks at her face she is reminded of a nightmare that she can never forget,” Ms. Dunn said. In an attempt to keep track of the welter of defendants, she repeatedly put pictures of them up on the screen while describing their role in events, or the logos of their organizations.

Judge Norman K. Moon, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia by President Bill Clinton, is presiding over the case, which is known as Sines v. Kessler and expected to last four weeks.

Matt Eich for The New York Times

It took three days to select the jury, which consists of eight white people and four Black people, including one Black woman and three white women. Given the violence that surrounded the event in 2017, the judge decided that for the safety of the jurors he would assign them numbers rather than release their names.

During the selection process, Judge Moon plumbed the opinions of the possible jurors one by one, asking for their views on a range of topics including the Black Lives Matter and antifa movements, whether white people could be the victims of discrimination, and the removal of Confederate monuments.

Ms. Dunn, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, expressed concern that harboring an extremely negative attitude toward antifa might “cloud” a juror’s ability to be impartial if the defendants falsely accused the plaintiffs of being adherents.

The prospective jurors who were let go tended to have expressed unbending opinions about one side or the other, referring to antifa as “terrorists,” for example. No. 185 said, “I don’t believe that any demonstration toward hate is acceptable.” One man who was dismissed said he feared antidemocratic forces on the right. Another said he did not consider antisemitism a problem.

During the opening statements, various defendants tried to separate themselves from the others, saying that they barely knew each other or were not heavily involved with the rally’s organization.

Their side of the courtroom had already appeared fractious during jury selection, with half a dozen lawyers sitting beside Mr. Spencer and Mr. Cantwell, who have said they lack the funds to pay anyone to represent them. At one point Mr. Kolenich expressed exasperation at working with those lacking legal training.

Several of the defendants have complained that being removed from social media platforms because of the rally proved financially crippling, while at least seven have ignored the proceedings, prompting fines and other sanctions from the court. Others said they left the movement or disbanded their organizations.

But the group was fundamentally committed to white nationalists goals, the lawyers for the plaintiffs argued. “Many of the defendants wanted to build a white ethnostate — a nation for only white people — that could only occur after a violent race war,” Ms. Dunn said. “They wanted to build an army of white nationalists for what they themselves named the Battle of Charlottesville.”

The lawyers for the plaintiffs objected periodically during the presentations by the other side on Thursday. Judge Moon repeatedly interrupted the defense lawyers to admonish them to stick to the issue of whether the plaintiffs are due compensation instead of wandering into other subjects.

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