A dark moment in U.S. history is being revisited as a federal civil trial began in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday over a violent 2017 white nationalist rally that ended with an alleged neo-Nazi ramming his car into counterprotesters, killing one and injuring more than 30.
Jury selection got underway in the high-profile civil case in the U.S. district court in Charlottesville against organizers and certain participants of the “Unite the Right” rally. Nine people injured over the two-day event are accusing promoters of exhorting followers to “defend the South and Western civilization” from non-white people and their allies, according to the lawsuit.
“There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal-clear at the outset — the violence in Charlottesville was no accident,” contends the suit that is seeking unspecified damages from 24 defendants, including James Alex Fields Jr., the Ohio man who plowed his Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants started questioning potential jurors at about 9:30 a.m. Monday and quickly learned that candidates have developed strong views on the case.
The first juror questioned told the court he could set aside his belief that the defendants were terrorists, according to ABC affiliate station WIRC in Richmond. The man was dismissed from the case, but several other would-be jurors expressed similar views, WIRC reported.
Fields, now 24, was convicted in 2018 of murder and multiple counts of aggravated malicious wounding, malicious wounding and hit and run. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Fields also pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crimes in a deal his attorneys worked out with prosecutors to spare him the death penalty.
Among the other defendants named in the civil suit are the alleged key organizers of the 2017 rally; Jason Kessler — who took out the permit for the rally — and Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, which the plaintiffs have described in court documents as a white nationalist think tank.
Also named as defendants in the suit are the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, the East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and Andrew Anglin of Ohio, founder of the far-right website the Daily Stormer.
The trial marks the first major civil suit to be tried under the Enforcement Act of 1871, which is also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act and passed by Congress in response to a wave of terrorist violence against African Americans in the South.
“These defendants planned violence on social media and on other communication forums and even in-person conversations. They went to Charlottesville, committed that violence and then celebrated that violence,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit supporting the plaintiffs, told ABC affiliate WRIC in Richmond, Virginia.
The defendants claim they were exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and their right to self-defense, claiming counterprotesters initially turned violent.
“Plaintiffs complaint is long on coarse internet language regarding non-whites and short on allegations of racial violence perpetrated by any moving defendant,” defense attorneys argued in a motion to dismiss the case that was denied.
The defendants also said the lawsuit fails to demonstrate that they conspired to incite violence.
“Plaintiffs have failed to make any credible allegation that any moving defendant came to any agreement with anybody, to do anything, other than march and chant in Charlottesville,” defense attorneys said in a filing.
Kessler and Spencer both denied the allegations that they helped instigate the violence in their responses to the lawsuit.
Immediately after the Charlottesville rally ended in the deadly hit and run, Kessler released a statement blaming local police for the mayhem.
“The blame for today’s violence is primarily the result of the Charlottesville government officials and the law enforcement officers which failed to maintain law and order by protecting the First Amendment rights of the participants of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” Kessler said in a statement to WVIR-TV, the NBC affiliate station in Charlottesville.
The “Unite the Right” rally was organized in response to a February 2017 decision by the Charlottesville City Council to consider a petition to remove a statue honoring Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Far-right demonstrators from across the country descended on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017, where many were seen marching with tiki torches, giving Nazi salutes, and chanting “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Broken legs and emotional distress
Several of the plaintiffs were marching on Aug. 12, 2017, with a group of counterprotesters on Fourth Street in downtown Charlottesville when Fields’ was recorded driving his car into the protesters at high speed.
Marcus Martin, one of the plaintiffs, was peacefully protesting when he saw Fields’ car bearing down on him and pushed his fiancee out of the way right before he was struck by the vehicle, suffering a broken leg and ankle, according to the lawsuit.
Martin’s now-wife, Marissa Blair, who is also a plaintiff, was a co-worker and friend of Heyer, the woman killed in the incident. Both Martin and Blair suffered not only physical injuries but also emotional distress from the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Another plaintiff, referred to in court papers as Jane Doe 1, said she was marching with her mother and sister when Field’s car plowed into her, breaking both her legs and a knee.
‘Very fine people on both sides’
In the aftermath of the violence, then-President Donald Trump came under fire from Democrats — and many Republicans — for failing to strongly condemn the white supremacists and said during a news conference that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
President Joe Biden has said the turmoil in Charlottesville is the reason he ran for president.
“In that moment, I knew that the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime. I wrote at the time that we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said in his 2019 campaign launch video.
The civil trial is expected to last at least four weeks, and the aim of the litigation, according to the lawsuit, is to get justice for the plaintiffs and “to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of (the) Defendants, not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America.”