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Unite the Right trial opens with competing versions of deadly Charlottesville rally

Flowers and signs decorated the site of a memorial to Heather Heyer, who died during the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. (Steve Helber/AP)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jurors on Thursday were presented with two competing versions of what unfolded on Aug. 11-12, 2017, when hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for a rally that ended with an avowed neo-Nazi plowing his car through a crowd, killing a woman.

In opening statements in the federal civil trial to determine whether the leading figures in the Unite the Right rally conspired to engage in racially motivated violence, the plaintiffs’ attorney said that violence was planned for months, in coded language calling for attacks on Black and Jewish people.

Representatives for many of the two dozen defendants named in this case blamed others for the violence and said their hateful language was hyperbolic — and constitutionally protected — speech.

“Plaintiffs are going to prove that violence was planned, that it was executed and that it was celebrated by the defendants,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn. “What they say and do privately behind closed doors is going to tell us a lot about their true motives and plans in this case.”

James Kolenich, a lawyer for several of the defendants, who previously said he took on this case to “oppose Jewish influence in society,” said that although his clients are easy to dislike, they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and protest.

“Nobody likes fascists or Nazis,” Kolenich said. “If you haven’t learned not to like my clients before you came in here today for this case, you’re going to learn throughout this trial that the rhetoric they use, the positions they advocate are not likable things and, in many cases, the people involved in this are not likable people. But that is 100 percent legally irrelevant.”

A jury of 12 people, chosen through an exacting selection process, listened to these statements. Because this is a civil case, jurors need only to find “a preponderance of the evidence” to reach a guilty verdict, rather than the higher bar of “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal trials.

The final jury appeared to include four women, eight men and four Black people, and their views on politics and identity varied. They include a woman who thought the Unite the Right rally was “a tragic nightmare,” a man who believes far-left activists known as antifa are “troublemakers” who get into “racial riots,” and a man who dislikes Black Lives Matter because he claimed leaders say “they are trained Marxists.” There is also a man who had favorable views on Black Lives Matter and antifa, and a woman who often changes the television channel if news about these events comes up.

Dunn’s opening remarks were expansive, taking the jurors through what she described as the clandestine planning of the rally on Discord, a messaging platform. She said organizers spent months assembling their army for what they called the “Battle of Charlottesville.”

As she made the plaintiffs’ case to the jurors, she displayed photos of the defendants on a screen, linking them in a web with red lines to show their alleged ties in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence in Charlottesville.

She retold the events of that August weekend, when men carrying torches chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and defendant James A. Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

This presentation was punctuated by graphic videos, including one showing White men wielding flagpoles and shields in a parking garage while violently beating DeAndre Harris, a former special-education instructional assistant who is Black. Dunn also played audio of a hateful rant by defendant Richard Spencer on Aug. 12, using slurs for Jewish and Black people.

Dunn showed a text message exchange between Spencer and defendant Christopher Cantwell less than a week before the deadly Unite the Right rally about coordinating the event.

“I’m willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration, many in my audience would follow me there too,” Cantwell wrote, “but I want to coordinate and make sure it’s worth it to our cause.”

“It’s worth it,” Spencer replied. “At least for me.”

The defendants had a variety of different representation, and there were seven opening statements from the defense: five from attorneys and two from Spencer and Cantwell, who represented themselves.

The defendants and their attorneys did not dispute their hateful views, but argued that they were simply exercising their right to free speech and that their calls for assaulting Black and Jewish people were jokes. They said the violence that erupted that weekend was the fault of antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists, and of Charlottesville police, who they said failed to keep protesters and counterprotesters apart.

White supremacists brought shields, some argued, because they were the ones who were afraid of being injured while attempting to hold a peaceful, permitted rally to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The lawsuit brought against the defendants in this case is based on the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the KKK. Civil rights nonprofit Integrity First for America is backing the suit.

Jurors saw two contrasting images of Spencer, who led the torchlight march the night before the rally, in the courtroom on Thursday. One was the white supremacist shown on video chanting “Sieg Heil” and screaming about his dominance over Black and Jewish people. The other was the man in the room, wearing a tie, quoting Scottish poet Robert Burns and making self-deprecating jokes about how the jurors can “bash” him on Twitter when this is all over.

In court on Thursday, he told jurors this case is “not about scattered, often stupid ramblings and insults of the alt-right.” He asked them to “give a bad guy a fair shake.”

Dunn presented screenshots of the defendants’ conversations and social media posts with vile language. Defendant Elliott Kline, also known as Eli Mosley, wrote that they would have blood on their white polos and called himself the “JUDENJAGER,” or “Jew hunter.” Robert “Azzmador” Ray wrote that the plan was to gas Jewish people, using a slur, and Michael Hill called for supporters to come to Charlottesville on Aug. 12 to “defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies.”

Cantwell’s defense was a rambling diatribe that began by asking the jurors if they ever had the “intellectual curiosity” to read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” He insulted the Black Lives Matter movement, plugged his podcast and used the n-word.

After the rally, Dunn said, Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer, celebrated how Fields sped his car through a crowd and killed Heyer. “Looks like it was payback time,” he tweeted.

Roberta Kaplan, another plaintiffs’ attorney, played chilling video of the fatal car attack, in which jurors could hear the screams of counterprotesters as Fields struck four of the plaintiffs.

“Marcus? Marcus!” a voice is heard screaming, calling out for plaintiff Marcus Martin, who needed surgery for a broken leg and ankle after being struck by the car.

Plaintiff Elizabeth Sines, identified in the complaint as a second-year law student at the University of Virginia, recorded a video of herself in that moment to document the attack. The video was played in the courtroom Thursday.

“A car ran through! Okay, I’m reporting, okay, okay, a car, oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, pausing and putting her hand over her mouth. She started to cry, and her hand was shaking. “A car ran through the crowd.”