'Unite the Right' Organizers Must Pay $25M to 9 Injured During Charlottesville Rally

A jury decided Tuesday that white nationalist leaders who organized the 2017 "Unite the Right" Charlottesville rally must pay more than $25 million in damages.

After the nearly month-long trial, the jury in the U.S. District Court in Charlottesville deadlocked on two key claims. Those accused were also found liable on four other counts in a lawsuit filed by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two-day rally.

On August 11 and 12, 2017, hundreds of white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the "Unite the Right" rally, protesting city plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During a march at the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists surrounded counter-protesters while chanting "Jews will not replace us," and threw burning tiki torches at them. The next day, a declared admirer of Adolf Hitler intentionally drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

The lawsuit accused some of the country's most well-known white nationalists of organizing the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally's main organizer. Alongside Kessler is Richard Spencer, who coined the term "alt-right" to define a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others. Also accused is Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the "crying Nazi" for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counterdemonstrators.

The verdict seeks to rebuke the white nationalist movement and the two dozen individuals and organizations who were accused in a federal lawsuit of previously orchestrating violence against Jews, African Americans and others.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Protestors at Robert E. Lee Statue
A jury decided Tuesday that white nationalist leaders who organized the 2017 “Unite the Right” Charlottesville rally must pay more than $25 million in damages. In this September 16, 2017 file photo, protesters hold signs in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Steve Helber/Associated Press

Lawyers for the plaintiffs invoked a 150-year-old law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. Commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, the law contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes. Fields is one of 24 defendants named in the lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville.

The trial featured emotional testimony from people who were struck by Fields' car or witnessed the attacks as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.

Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields' car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, had been killed.

"I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people that were there. It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere. I was terrified," said Blair, who became tearful several times during her testimony.

During their testimony, some of the defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed one another and the anti-fascist political movement known as Antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend. Others testified that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked by counterprotesters.

"We were coming to the rescue of our friends and allies that were being beaten by the communists," said Michael Tubbs, chief of staff of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization.

In closing arguments to the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs had not proved that they conspired to commit violence at the rally.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs showed the jury a vast collection of chat room exchanges, text messages and social media postings by the defendants to demonstrate the extent of their communications before the rally and try to prove their claim that they planned the violence well in advance.

"If you want a chance to crack some Antifa skulls in self defense don't open carry," Kessler wrote in a message about two months before the rally. "You will scare the s**t out of them and they'll just stand off to the side."

The white nationalists maintained there was no conspiracy, and their blustery talk before the rally was just rhetoric and is protected by the First Amendment.

Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.