By DENISE LAVOIE
AP Legal Affairs Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A jury began deliberations Friday in a civil trial of white nationalists accused of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence at the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville four years ago.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville is being asked to decide whether two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis and white nationalist organizations are responsible for violence during two days of demonstrations in 2017. Jurors will also decide if the defendants are liable for compensatory and punitive damages for nine people who were physically hurt or emotionally scarred by the violence and filed a federal lawsuit.
Just before deliberations began Friday morning, Judge Norman Moon said one juror was dismissed because his two children were possibly exposed to COVID-19 at school and were told to quarantine at home. Moon said the juror is unvaccinated and therefore poses a greater risk to others.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12, 2017, ostensibly to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists surrounded counterprotesters, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” and threw burning tiki torches at them. The next day, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler rammed his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19.
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes for the car attack. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages and a judgment that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
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.
During closings arguments Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiffs told jurors that the defendants “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially motivated violence that killed one counterprotester and injured dozens over the course of the two days.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs showed the jury dozens of text messages, chat room exchanges and social media postings by the rally’s main planners, including some peppered with racial epithets and talk of “cracking skulls” of anti-racist counterprotesters.
The defendants used their closing arguments to distance themselves from Fields. Their attorneys told jurors that injuries suffered by the plaintiffs do not prove that the defendants entered into a conspiracy to commit violence.
Lawyers for the defendants have also argued that their use of racial epithets and that their blustery talk in chat rooms before the rally is protected by the First Amendment. Several defendants have testified that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked. They’ve blamed the violence on anti-fascist protesters known as antifa, and also each other.
The lawsuit is being funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization.
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