Civil trial over deadly 'Unite the Right' extremist rally to begin in Charlottesville

·3 min read
Civil trial over deadly 'Unite the Right' extremist rally to begin in Charlottesville

More than four years after a white nationalist rally in Virginia turned deadly, jury selection began Monday in the federal civil trial against the organizers and some participants.

The civil lawsuit accuses more than two dozen defendants of conspiring to violate the rights of peaceful counterdemonstrators and commit racially motivated violence against nonwhite and Jewish people during the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The trial is expected to last at least four weeks, according to ABC News.

"The violence, suffering and emotional distress that occurred in Charlottesville was a direct, intended and foreseeable result of defendants' unlawful conspiracy," the lawsuit says. "It was all according to plan."

More: Lawsuit over Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally has crippled white supremacist groups

The far-right rally was organized in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists – some dressed in what looked like battle gear – marched through the University of Virginia campus wielding tiki torches and shouting racist and antisemitic chants. Violent clashes with counterprotesters broke out while authorities largely stood on the sidelines before police declared an unlawful assembly and forced the crowd to disperse.

James Alex Fields Jr. later drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. Heather Heyer, 32, a paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed, and nearly three dozen people were injured.

President Donald Trump sparked controversy after the rally when he said “both sides” were to blame for the violence.

Fields was convicted of murder and later sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges. The Lee statue that sparked the rally has since been removed.

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The civil lawsuit was filed by community members, some of whom were injured in the car attack, and funded by the nonprofit organization Integrity First for America.

The suit accuses the defendants of using private servers on Discord, an instant messaging platform designed for online gaming, to orchestrate the rally.

Attorneys for the defendants, including extremists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell, argued that the online conversations were "lawful event planning," that they acted in self-defense, and that the rally was protected by the First and Second amendments.

The civil case has moved slowly over the past four years because of the large number of defendants, a lack of cooperation from some of them, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit invokes a post-Civil War federal law from 1871 designed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from denying Black Americans their civil rights that allows people to sue when they are injured by conspiracies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center used the strategy in several cases in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1987, the center's lawyers won $7 million after a Black teenager was killed, and an Alabama Klan organization was sent into bankruptcy.

In late August, seven officers from the U.S. Capitol Police sued Trump, his longtime adviser Roger Stone and members of far-right extremist groups using the same statue and alleging they conspired to use violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election

The Charlottesville suit already has helped dismantle some of America's most well-known white supremacist groups, and it has financially crippled Spencer, once leader of the "alt-right," the white supremacist and nationalist movement that came to prominence under Trump.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs, with the amount to be decided by a jury. It aims to "ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of Defendants – not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America."

Contributing: Will Carless, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Unite the Right rally: Trial in Charlottesville begins