White supremacists civil trial in Charlottesville begins Monday

More than four years since white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” held a tiki torch march on the grounds of University of Virginia, the night before the Unite the Right rally ended with death and injuries, organizers will be back in Charlottesville, Monday — this time in a federal courtroom.

Jury selection begins in the civil rights lawsuit filed by nine residents of Charlottesville who allege they suffered physical harm and emotional distress during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally, which brought hundreds of far-right extremists to the university town.

Jurors will consider whether organizers conspired to engage in racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville.

Plaintiffs include people who were injured when James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more. A minister, local students and other community members filed the suit.

Defendants include organizer Jason Kessler, who lives in the Charlottesville area, as well as Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the hate site “The Daily Stormer,” neo-Nazi leaders, as well as Christopher Cantwell, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for extortion and threat offenses.

Much of the evidence in the trial will be social media posts, memes and group chats calling for violence against Blacks and Jews, including an image of a car plowing into a group of generic protesters.

In addition to those who suffered physical injuries, plaintiffs say they have suffered lasting emotional distress and trauma.

Fields is also being sued. He is serving life in prison plus 419 years for Heyer’s death, and a life sentence for federal hate crimes. He agreed to plead guilty to the hate crime charges to avoid the death penalty.

Plaintiffs have already received default judgments against several defendants, who have refused to cooperate in the legal proceedings.

In pretrial arguments, many of the defendants have claimed that their participation in the rally — which was initially organized to counter Charlottesville’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — was based on protected free speech.

The trial is scheduled to last through mid-November.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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