Opening Statements Launched in Civil Trial Over Deadly ‘Unite the Right’ March

CHARLOTISVILLE, Virginia – Four years after a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in this sleepy college town with fatal results, opening deliberations began Thursday in a civil lawsuit accusing them of violent conspiracy — a case with significant ramifications for similar. Legal efforts against former President Donald Trump and others accused of rioting at the Capitol.

“This is a case of violence and intimidation that has been planned for months,” Karen Dunn, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the jury as the trial began at the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.

Dan immediately began playing a video of one of the indelible scenes of the event: far-right protesters holding torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

But the defendants in this case were not prosecuted for vile slogans – they are accused of conspiring to incite and carry out acts of violence that afflicted those who are being sued. This violence included the act of James Alex Fields, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of intentionally driving his car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

White nationalists march at the University of Virginia on the eve of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.Alejandro Alvarez/Reuters file

Prosecutors allege that Fields’ crime was the result of a conspiracy involving those who planned and organized the event, which was described as a protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

“One thing in this case should have been absolutely clear at first – the violence in Charlottesville was no accident,” the lawsuit says. Under the pretext of the ‘gathering,’ which they called ‘unifying the right,’ the defendants spent months carefully coordinating their efforts, both online and in person.

At the start of the defense opening in the afternoon, James Collinch, attorney for the far-right extremist Jason Kessler, quickly called for free speech.

“If the First Amendment does not defend the most disgusting utterance, it does not defend anything,” he said.

Defendant Richard Spencer, representing himself, said in his opening statement that “tough words on my part, old words, that simply aren’t enough” for the plaintiffs to prove their case.

“We had to realize that someone would commit these (violent) acts,” he added.

To make their case, the plaintiffs are relying on reams of evidence, including the movement of messages between participants, some of which were obtained when a batch of documents was leaked from gaming site Discord. The lawsuit alleges that in correspondence administered by two of the defendants, there were multiple warnings of violence, including:

● “I’m ready to break the skulls.”

● “If you don’t have a flamethrower you are wrong.”

● “Studies show 999/1000 n —— and feminists immediately upon encountering pepper spray.”

● “[E]If you don’t expect violence, prepare for it.”

● “There should be no mistake – these two aspects are irreconcilable [sic] Disagreements that will never reach a compromise – the only question is the level of conflict to determine the victor.”

“We have sued more than 20 defendants, including affiliated individuals and organizations,” the plaintiff’s other lead attorney, Roberta Kaplan, told NBC News in an interview in court. “What is meant in our case is that these are the groups that conspired to perpetrate this violence in Charlottesville, then perpetrated the violence and then celebrated the violence after it happened.”

At the start of the defense opening in the afternoon, James Collinch, attorney for the far-right extremist Jason Kessler, quickly called for free speech.

“If the First Amendment does not defend the most disgusting utterance, it does not defend anything,” he said.

Defendant Richard Spencer, representing himself, said in his opening statement that “the tough words on my part, the old words, it simply isn’t enough” for the plaintiffs to prove their case.

“We had to realize that someone would commit these (violent) acts,” he added.

Lawyers for some of the other defendants have already acknowledged that the case will be difficult for them to win.

“I think this case was very much driven by passion and an understandable desire for revenge,” Edward Reybrook, a lawyer for the National Socialist movement, told NBC News. “So if we can get around that, and we can only move forward with what the evidence says, I think this case will go to the defense. But I am not particularly optimistic.”

With funding from Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit, the lawsuit was designed to impose financial costs on far-right groups, and it has actually worked to some extent. Some of the groups behind the rally were disbanded, and Spencer, one of the known defendants, called the lawsuit “financially crippling.”

But perhaps the case’s most significant impact is its connection to the January 6 riots at the Capitol. The lawsuit was brought under an 1871 law designed to protect blacks from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that used “force, intimidation, or threat” to deny civil rights.

A number of lawsuits were filed under the same law accusing Trump and some of his associates, including Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, of inciting violence on January 6. Include plaintiffs Capitol Police Officers and members of Congress.

Amy Spitalnik, CEO of Integrity first for America. “What is crystal clear is that the unification of the Right was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was a harbinger of the cycle of extremism that followed in which each attack inspired the next, and this kind of violent hatred became increasingly normal.”

She said the Charlottesville case “can help break this cycle by clarifying the real financial, operational and legal consequences of extremism.”

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