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US jury awards $25m in damages over Unite the Right rally

ART GALLERY

A US jury has awarded $25m (£19m) in damages against the organisers of a deadly far-right rally in August 2017.

The defendants were found guilty on four of six counts in connection with the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The civil suit was filed by nine people who were injured physically or emotionally during the rally.

After an avowed neo-Nazi drove a car into counter-protesters, a woman was killed and dozens were injured.

The jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages to 12 defendants and $1 million to five white supremacist organisations in court. Punitive damages are awarded at the discretion of the court to punish a defendant for particularly harmful behaviour.

A total of $12 million in punitive damages was also imposed on the driver of the car involved in the fatal accident.

Following nearly a month of testimony at the Charlottesville trial, the jury of 11 deliberated for more than three days.

The two federal conspiracy charges on which jurors couldn’t agree alleged that the defendants plotted racial violence.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Roberta Kaplan, stated that they intend to refile the lawsuit so that a new jury can decide on those two charges.

The lawsuit claimed that the defendants “brought to Charlottesville imagery of the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, and fascism.”

“They also brought semi-automatic weapons, pistols, mace, rods, armour, shields, and torches,” according to the lawsuit.

Among the defendants are several prominent figures from America’s white nationalist and far-right movements.

Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organiser, and Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and spoke at the event, were among those found liable in the case.

Christopher Cantwell, another defendant, became known as “the crying Nazi” after an emotional YouTube video he posted after the rally went viral.

The lawsuit was based largely on an 1871 law passed after the American Civil War to protect black Americans from the Ku Klux Klan following their emancipation from slavery.

It allows private citizens to sue others suspected of violating civil rights, with the caveat that the plaintiffs must prove that they conspired to do so.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also gathered more than 5.3 terabytes of data, including social media posts and chat exchanges, to help them make their case.

The rally started as a protest against the removal of a Confederate monument.

Then-President Donald Trump was chastised after saying that there were “very fine people on both sides.” In the same speech, he stated that neo-Nazis and white nationalists “should be completely condemned.”

Heather Heyer, 32, a counter-protester, was killed when James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd. In June 2019, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Survivors of the incident testified in the civil case.

“It was a terrifying scene. There was blood everywhere “Marissa Blair, one of the plaintiffs, testified. “I was frightened.”

The defendants attempted to distance themselves from the violence and claimed that no conspiracy existed. They claimed that because none of them knew Fields, they could not have predicted that he would ram a vehicle into a crowd.

“None of these defendants could have predicted what James Fields did,” said Mr Kessler’s attorney.

The defendants contended that their racist views were protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees free speech, and that their rhetoric prior to the rally was merely bluster.

They also claimed to have acted in self-defense and blamed the police for failing to prevent the two sides from fighting.

However, court testimony suggested that some of the organisers could have predicted the violence.

Samantha Froelich, a former extremist, testified that the idea of using vehicles to target counter-protesters was discussed prior to the event.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have stated that they hope the lawsuit serves as a deterrent to future extremist rallies.

In October, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, which supported the legal action, told the BBC that “a case like this can also have much broader impacts in making clear there will be very real consequences for violence extremism.”

SourceBBC
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