A black man brutally beaten at last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — and who was later charged with assaulting a white nationalist — was acquitted Friday.
DeAndre Harris, 20, a former special education instructional assistant, was found not guilty by Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer Jr. on a misdemeanor charge of assault and battery against Harold Crews, a North Carolina lawyer and state chairman of the self-described white nationalist group League of the South. If Harris had been convicted, he would have faced up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The acquittal is a relief for Harris, who was beaten inside a parking garage next to the city’s police department on Aug. 12, 2017. He suffered a spinal injury and head lacerations that required 10 stitches.
Two months later, his legal path took an unexpected turn when Crews filed a police report and persuaded a Charlottesville magistrate to issue an arrest warrant in October on a felony charge of unlawful wounding, which carries a five-year maximum sentence. The news was cheered online by supporters of white nationalism, which is focused on the goal of achieving a whites-only state.
Before issuing his ruling Friday, Downer warned the crowd to “restrain” their emotions. As he spoke, it was unclear how he would rule, and many attendees — nearly all of them Harris supporters — looked worried.
The judge condemned the Unite the Right ralliers and counterprotesters.
“The behavior I’ve seen is appalling,” he said. “I can say this without question — that there was bad behavior all around.”
He also defended Crews. “I didn’t see that he did anything wrong that day at all.”
In the end, the judge declared Harris not guilty because he did not intend to hit Crews with a flashlight and was trying to defend his friend, who was in a struggle with Crews.
“I cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that [Harris] intended to hit Mr. Crews with [the flashlight].”
After he said the words “not guilty,” the audience erupted. They considered Harris the only victim of what happened that day during the parking garage confrontation.
Online sleuths, led by Black Lives Matter activist and Intercept journalist Shaun King, helped track down the identities and whereabouts of several men police say assaulted Harris: Jacob Scott Goodwin of Arkansas; Daniel Borden of Ohio; Alex Michael Ramos of Georgia; and Tyler Watkins Davis of Florida. Trials are scheduled for late April and early May; Davis’s trial has not been set.
YouTube footage from the rally shows a complicated sequence of events that led up to Harris’s beating, outside the Market Street parking garage, where dozens of members from the League of the South and Traditionalist Worker Party converged with counterprotesters.
In one piece of YouTube footage, Crews is clasping a large flagpole in front of another black protester, Corey Long, who is tugging on the other end. As Long and Crews tussle over the pole, Harris, standing next to Long, swings a flashlight at Crews, whose head snaps back to the right, appearing as though he’d been struck on the head or shoulder.
Crews, wearing a sport coat and bow tie in the courtroom, testified that his injury from the flashlight amounted to a large welt and several deep cuts.
Harris testified that he swung the flashlight at Crews only because he believed Crews was attacking his friend and wanted to knock away the flagpole.
“I [saw] Mr. Crews driving his flag into Corey, and that’s when I tried to break up the altercation with the flashlight,” Harris told the judge.
Harris said he did not bring the flashlight to the rally as a weapon. Instead, he said, another counterprotester gave it to him for protection.
Moments after the altercation with Crews, several men — one of them dressed in military tactical gear and holding a plastic shield — stormed into the garage, chasing Harris and forcing him to the ground, where he was pummeled.
Video of Harris’s beating tore through the Internet. The ferocity of the assault heightened the public outcry over the rally, where a driver also plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer . James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with murder in her death. The rally was organized to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.
After the event, critics questioned the strategy and planning of the Charlottesville Police Department, whose officers frequently stood to the side and did not try to halt skirmishes or get between ralliers and counterprotesters. In December, an independent review commissioned by the city was released, and it concluded that the department’s planning was “inadequate and disconnected” and that the officers’ lack of preparation led to “disastrous” consequences.
The report, prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said that after Harris swung his flashlight at Crews and ran into the garage, he either tripped or was pushed to the ground. He was “defenseless against a mob of angry Alt-Right demonstrators” who beat him with flag sticks, shields and pieces of wood, the report said.
When Harris escaped, the report said, he was found by Charlottesville Sheriff James Brown. By then, the report said, Harris’s head had been split open, and he was bleeding.
A day after the attack, Harris set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for his medical bills — he wound up more than tripling his goal of $50,000.
“We will not let this fade & disappear. People are carrying real hate in their hearts for the Black Community,” he wrote, “and I refuse to just let it happen.”
After the trial was over Friday, Harris stayed inside, away from the crowds, but his attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, emerged for a short news conference.
“DeAndre and his parents want peace in this community,” she said, describing him as “a young person who came here to live and work. He was a person on the cusp of adulthood and a career. I know DeAndre has had a tough, tough road. He was the victim of a terrible attack, and he’s working through it. He’s doing better.”