Jury in Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ trial reaches partial verdict

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Nine people injured during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in downtown Charlottesville are entitled to financial compensation, a jury declared Tuesday in reaching a partial verdict. But it could not agree on the most serious claims that the defendants — about two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis and key organizers — engaged in a conspiracy to commit violence under federal law.

The jury of 11 deliberated for over three days following four weeks of testimony in the civil trial in a federal court in Charlottesville. The plaintiffs, all from Charlottesville, described broken bones, bloodshed and emotional trauma resulting from the mayhem. The defendants, some self-described racists and white nationalists, argued they were exercising their First Amendment rights in organizing and participating in the rally.

The case, known as Sines v. Kessler, was the first major lawsuit in years to be tried under the so-called Ku Klux Klan Act, a rarely used federal law codified after the Civil War. It was installed to diminish the power of white supremacists and protect African Americans, prohibiting discrimination for voting and other rights.

In making its decision, the jury had to find that the defendants, which include Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the rally, and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” entered into a conspiracy to commit violence. But the jury was deadlocked in the first two claims: a federal “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights” and “action for neglect to prevent.”

The jury also agreed to a range of punitive damages on the other claims, including assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, awarding more than $25 million for the plaintiffs.

Clashes at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Among the evidence were text messages, social media posts and conversations on Discord, an online chat platform, in which organizers discussed and meticulously planned the two-day event, which turned deadly when James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man who revered Hitler, rammed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist. Dozens were also injured in the car attack, including four of the plaintiffs.

Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, had asked jurors to consider awarding millions of dollars in punitive damages: from $7 million to $10 million for those physically harmed and $3 million to $5 million for emotional pain.

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Gary Grumbach reported from Charlottesville, and Erik Ortiz from New York.

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