This month has been full of court cases that touch on race and discrimination in the U.S., including a jury decision Tuesday that organizers of the deadly 2017 far-right Charlottesville, Va., rally owe $25 million in damages.
According to the New York Times, the jurors found that main organizers of the rally are liable under state law for injuries counter protestors sustained during the event.
During the “Unite the Right” rally, extremists carried torches and shouted racist slogans to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army general who surrendered to the Union at the end of the Civil War. The statue has since been removed.
Far-right protestors brought confederate and Nazi flags as well as weapons. At one point, white supremacist James Fields, Jr. deliberately drove his car into 32-year-old peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer, killing her. He received multiple life sentences in prison for the act.
Other counter-protestors suffered concussions and a shattered leg as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, the inability to concentrate, flashbacks and panic attacks.
Four protestors who were injured when Heyer was killed joined five others to file the civil suit in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville that jurors decided this week.
“All plaintiffs sought compensatory and unspecified punitive damages, including payment for medical costs as well as $3 million to $10 million for pain and suffering depending on the degree of their injuries,” said the New York Times.
Twelve individuals ordered were to pay $500,000 apiece while five white nationalist organizations were assessed $1 million each.
The jury found Fields liable for $12 million in punitive damages, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical expenses stemming from assault, battery and emotional distress. Punitive damages are to be split equally among the plaintiffs.
However, lawyers for defendants said they would seek to reduce the amounts and that there is little chance their clients will pay.
“The defendants in this case are destitute, none of them have any money,” said Joshua Smith. He represented Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the Traditionalist Worker Party, a group based on Germany’s Nazi Party.
“Get out of town!” a group of protestors yelled at him as he stepped up to address reporters outside the federal courthouse.
According to The New York Times, seven defendants ignored the proceedings altogether. Their cases will be addressed separately by the court, said the outlet.
Another defendant in the trial was Richard Spencer, founder of a white-supremacist think tank called the National Policy Institute. He is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a kind of professional racist in khakis,” who coined the term alt-right.
Spencer defended himself during the trial. He has said that the case has been “financially crippling.”
Samantha Froelich, who was dating two of the main organizers simultaneously in the lead-up to the rally, testified that people discussed hitting protesters with cars at Spencer’s apartment in Alexandria, Va. She has since left the movement.
While the plaintiffs’ case took three weeks and 36 witnesses to argue, the defendants rested after a day and a half.
During the trial, supporters of the far-right defendants cheered them on with expletive-laced, racist rants online.
“They’ve proven to you that the alt-right is the alt-right — they are racists; they are anti-semites,” James Kolenich, one of the defense lawyers, said in closing arguments. “But what does that do to prove a conspiracy?”
While the jury ordered far-right rally organizers to pay counter-protestors, they were deadlocked on whether the defendants are guilty of two federal conspiracy charges. The jury found a racial conspiracy to commit violence under state law, but a similar provision of federal law is more complex.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs still consider the case a win.
“I think this verdict is a message today that this country does not tolerate violence based on racial and religious hatred in any form, and that no one will ever bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, ever again,” said Roberta Kaplan, the lead attorney who organized the case through a nonprofit organization called Integrity First for America.
Legal experts also view the decision as a win for the plaintiffs.
“Though there is some ambiguity in the verdict, the bottom line is that the jury found for the plaintiffs and awarded significant compensatory and punitive damages,” said Richard C. Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who had been following the case closely.
In addition to securing compensation for their clients and holding march organizers responsible, lawyers for the counter-protesters said they hoped to deter hate groups from mounting similar events in the future.
Other significant jury decisions this month include the “not guilty” verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse, a teen who shot three people, killing two, during protests in Kenosha over the murder of Black man Jacob Blake by a white police officer and “guilty” verdicts for three men who killed Black man Ahmaud Arbery last February.