The 11 jurors couldn’t come to an agreement on two federal conspiracy claims, but they found that every defendant — including former alt-right leader Richard Spencer, rally organizer Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell, dubbed the “crying Nazi” after sharing a video of himself weeping — was liable under Virginia law.
“We think that is a resounding verdict today and frankly a good sign for the future on the remaining counts,” plaintiffs attorney Karen Dunn said, referring to the allegations that the men conspired to commit racially motivated violence and failed to stop it — accusations her clients might pursue again in a future lawsuit.
For 16 days, jurors listened to arguments inside a red brick federal courthouse a mile from the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, where four years ago white supremacists marched with torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Just blocks away was the spot where James Alex Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi, plowed his car through a crowd of protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, striking four of the people who later brought the lawsuit and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The nine plaintiffs’ attorneys took up the vast majority of that time, presenting text messages, social media posts, videos and expert testimony that meticulously reconstructed how the defendants conspired in advance of that weekend.
“Instead of readers of the Daily Stormer, which is what the defendants wanted, our plaintiffs got a jury of their peers,” co-counsel Roberta Kaplan said. “Today was a huge victory against hate and for dignity and civil rights.”
The trial came at an extraordinary moment for America’s judicial system, when juries in three states were, at the same time, deciding cases that have come to represent the nation’s deepening divides over race and justice.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a White teenager, shot three men — killing two — during the chaotic protests that followed the August 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense, and a Wisconsin jury agreed, acquitting him of all charges. Meanwhile, a jury in Georgia is debating the murder counts against three White men accused of gunning down Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man.
But the Charlottesville proceedings were like none other in recent memory.
Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit, backed the litigation, which was underpinned by a Reconstruction-era statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan. The lawsuit targeted two dozen defendants, including seven who already faced default judgments because they refused to cooperate.
The scene in the courtroom often veered into the bizarre. Defendants dropped the n-word, expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and trafficked in racist pseudoscience. Two of them, Spencer and Cantwell, represented themselves, which allowed the men to interrogate their victims, as well as their co-conspirators.
During questioning by Spencer, Kessler called him “slimy,” “cold,” “inhumane” and a “serial killer.” In another instance, Cantwell asked co-defendant Matthew Heimbach to tell his “favorite Holocaust joke.”
Listening in on the public access line, the men knew, were followers from all over the country. One day, neo-Nazis on far-right chat rooms celebrated after people listening in somehow unmuted themselves during the trial’s afternoon break and trolled the court, saying the n-word numerous times and declaring, “Make America great again.”
Even some of the defendants’ lawyers embraced the racist rhetoric. Within earshot of Kaplan, who is Jewish and wore a Star of David necklace throughout the trial, defense attorney Joshua Smith repeatedly used the word “k---” in hopes that it would “desensitize” the jury.
His tactic failed, it seems. Smith’s three clients alone were ordered to pay more than $2 million in damages.
After the verdict was read, Judge Norman K. Moon praised the attorneys and white supremacists who represented themselves during this case for “a very civil proceeding.”
That characterization was at odds with the weeks of testimony that included the torrent of slurs, among other transgressions seldom seen in courtrooms. Cantwell bullied witnesses, cursed at opposing counsel and danced while questioning a plaintiff who was recalling the trauma of seeing someone die during the rally.
Moon, who is in his 80s, repeatedly interrupted Spencer for going off topic, including when he brought up Jesus and Donald Trump in his closing arguments.
During the trial, multiple defendants called into far-right podcasts or radio shows, bragging about how well it was going. Michael Hill, leader of the neo-Confederate League of the South, said on a radio show that he was “very honored … to have gotten to face off with this New York Jew attorney.”
Moon mentioned none of that in court Tuesday. Instead, he praised the “professionalism” on both sides. He looked at Cantwell as he continued: “Those who represented themselves acquitted themselves well also.”
“All in all,” Moon said, “no one could have asked for a trial to go any better, a trial with all the potential problems this one had.”
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, had followed the trial on Twitter, unable to bring herself to dial in to the public line and hear the voices of the defendants who had celebrated her daughter’s death.
Each night, after catching up on the day’s proceedings, she would watch TV or play Candy Crush. If she didn’t take that break, the trial would make its way into her dreams.
“I never really get to leave that day,” Bro said, though she was comforted by the clear message that the jury’s verdict sent to people who peddle in, and act on, words of hate.
The defendants, meanwhile, reeled in the trial’s aftermath.
“I’m not really sure what I think or feel right now and I have things to do with my family for Thanksgiving. So I’m just going to ponder my next course of action for a bit,” Kessler tweeted, sounding far less self-assured than he did four years ago.
For months leading up to that deadly weekend, Kessler and others named in the suit had spewed hateful, barbaric rhetoric on message boards and in online chats with one another, eagerly predicting bloodshed at what they called the “Battle of Charlottesville.”
“This is going to be a violent summer,” Spencer texted a comrade two months before the rally.
“I would go to the ends of the earth to secure a future for my people,” Kessler wrote Spencer around the same time. “This is war.”
“We’re raising an army my liege,” he messaged during another exchange. “For free speech, but the cracking of skulls if it comes to it.”
“I think we are gonna see some serious brawls at cville next month too and we’ll see blood on some of these white polos lol,” Elliott Kline, also known as Eli Mosley, wrote on Discord, a messaging platform where he called himself “JUDENJAGER,” or “Jew hunter.”
“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 Spencer a week before the gathering, “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.”
They were just joking, the defense argued. It was, they insisted, just the hollow talk of angry young men whose fantasies about gassing Jewish people, brutalizing minorities and forming a White ethnostate were seldom taken seriously beyond the haven of their message boards.
“There was a subculture in which it was the coolest thing in the world to be as edgy as possible,” Spencer testified, calling it “very juvenile and silly.”
And yet, they and their followers arrived in Charlottesville with mace, rods, armor, shields, torches, handguns and semiautomatic rifles — and the men celebrated the carnage they wrought in its aftermath.
On Twitter, Kessler described Heyer’s maiming as “payback time,” and Cantwell referred to her on Facebook as “bleeding commie filth we sent to the morgue.”
One of the plaintiffs, Natalie Romero, shared the horror of that weekend in court.
She was sprayed with mace, called a “bitch” and spit on before making her way to Fourth Street SE, the narrow one-way street where Fields drove his car through the crowd, striking her.
She felt blood dripping down her face, a loud ringing in her ears and the thumping of her heartbeat. Romero’s fractured skull would cloud her memory in the years that followed as she began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and flashbacks.
In her nightmares, Romero testified, she could still hear the cadence of white supremacists marching at night, their faces illuminated by torch lights as they chanted “You will not replace us!”
Of the $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages, more than $14 million was assessed against Fields, who is serving a life sentence for killing Heyer.
For engaging in the conspiracy, each of the defendants was ordered to pay $500,000, and five white supremacist organizations were ordered to pay $1 million each.
For engaging in racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence, five defendants were ordered to collectively pay two plaintiffs $500,000 in compensation for their injuries as well as $1 million in punitive damages.
Two of the counts named only Fields, who was ordered to pay over $1.5 million to compensate plaintiffs for their physical and emotional injuries as well as $12 million in punitive damages.
After the verdict was read, James Kolenich, who represents two defendants and the group Identity Evropa, said he would try to reduce the damages in future court hearings.
Kolenich, who previously said he wanted to participate in this case to “oppose Jewish influence in society,” said that “some of the organizations have some assets. … I don’t think any of them could afford to pay out of pocket.”
In a statement, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the civil rights group behind the lawsuit, said it was “committed to ensuring our plaintiffs can collect on these judgments — and that the defendants cannot escape liability.”
After the verdict, Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” sounded fatalistic, calling the expense of the trial “crippling.”
Asked whether he’s worried that the punitive damages would lead to portions of his future wages being extracted or whether liens on his properties would be imposed, he said, “They could do that. They could do all those things.”
Spencer, who plans to appeal, has long tried to project two personas, depending on the audience. With media members, he seldom uses demeaning language for the minorities he has called inferior. With his comrades, in private, he exchanged Nazi salutes and made racist, antisemitic jokes.
In a recording that was later leaked, Spencer went on a tirade after Heyer’s death, using slurs for racial and religious minorities who he suggested “get ruled by people like me.”
“I’m ashamed of it. Those are not my sincerely, thoughtful beliefs,” Spencer testified.
Spencer brought with him to court a plush blue dinosaur he described as an “emotional support animal.” It was a gift from his young daughter, whom he said he hopes to focus more on now.
He had no hope for the future of the alt-right, a movement that the plaintiffs hoped their lawsuit would decimate.
“That’s long dead and gone in my opinion,” Spencer said. “It’s buried.”
Rachel Weiner and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.