CHARLOTTESVILLE — Following weeks of testimony that has been audacious at times and purposefully shocking at others, lawyers for the Sines plaintiffs reminded jurors of the seriousness of the Sines v. Kessler case.
“It’ll be up to the 12 of you and the 12 of you alone to hold these defendants accountable for what they have done and the lasting damage that they have done,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan to a jury, kicking off closing arguments for a major rally trial. “It's up to you to demonstrate loud and clear that, contrary to what defendants would have you believe, none of this is funny, and none of it is a joke.”
After more than four years of build-up, the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit is now in the hands of a 12-person jury who will decide whether more than a dozen defendants conspired to come to Charlottesville in 2017 and commit acts of racist violence at the Unite the Right rally and preceding torch march.
If the jury rules in favor of the nine plaintiffs, then the defendants could face compensatory and punitive damages totaling in the millions. Though most of the individual and corporate defendants have little money or collateral, a steep financial verdict could impede future organizing efforts, effectively stopping or limiting their white supremacist causes.
The law underpinning the conspiracy allegations central to the lawsuit has been an issue throughout the trial, necessitating a 47-page long jury instruction form. Thursday, Kaplan and her co-counsel Karen Dunn spent much of their closing arguments both explaining conspiracy law and walking the jury back through three weeks of evidence and testimony.
The whole conspiracy started, Dunn said, in May 2017 when defendants Jason Kessler posted in a Discord server used to organize the rally that he wanted to have a “battle of Berkeley situation in Charlottesville,” referencing a violent alt-right protest in the vicinity of the University of California campus in 2017.
Dunn said Kessler wanted his Unite the Right rally to be publicized so that everyone could see what an “unbeatable fighting force the alt right was,” and so he would be seen as a hero and leader within the white supremacist movement.
“As you've heard, Kessler built an army for that battle, complete with organizers, group leaders and promoters who would bring hundreds of followers who were armed, and foot soldiers who would carry out the mission,” Dunn said. “They all shared a common, unlawful purpose, as required by the instructions, to cause racially motivated violence at the ‘Battle of Charlottesville.’”
Dunn argued that Kessler succeeded in his goal, and brought in the other defendants as co-conspirators. The violence of the Aug. 11, 2017 torch march on University of Virginia Grounds, Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally and James Alex Fields Jr.’s car attack were all a foreseeable outcome of the conspiracy, Dunn said.
As evidence of this conspiracy, Dunn pointed to calls, texts and Discord messages sent between the defendants, including Kessler, Elliott Kline, Richard Spencer and Chris Cantwell. Dunn and Kaplan would also push back against arguments from defendants representing the League of the South, the Traditionalist Worker Party and the National Socialist Movements, that the groups were not part of a conspiracy because they had struck out to do their own thing after a falling out with Kessler.
Later, Kaplan walked the jury back through the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs, four of whom — Natalie Romero, Thomas Baker, Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin — were physically harmed in the car attack. The other five plaintiffs have suffered psychological and emotional damages, Kaplan said. For those injured in the car attack, Kaplan said the pain and suffering damages should total between $7 million and $10 million. For those injured at the rallies in other ways, Kaplan said they are requesting between $3 million and $5 million.
The defendants’ closing arguments differed from one another but, by and large, attempted to distance the defendants from Fields.
James Kolenich, attorney for Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Identity Evropa, argued that his clients did want to commit acts of violence but only if they had legal protections. Kolenich’s argument appeared to be an attempt to downplay messages from Kessler in which he recommended attendees not openly carry firearms so counter-protesters would be more likely to fight them. Memes and messages were also posted in Kessler’s UTR Discord server that advocated for running over protesters.
“They did talk about cars and car attacks and the legalities of running over people that are blocking the street,” Kolenich said. “Again, what is the legality of it? If you're conspiring to do something and you intend to cover it up then you don't care what the legality is. That doesn't mean anything to you.”
Bryan Jones, the attorney representing the League of the South and two of its leaders, Michael Hill and Michael Tubbs, likened the conspiracy allegations to a virus, arguing that the plaintiffs were claiming his clients were liable because they were at the same rally as Fields.
“An agreement is not a virus that passes between people who stand too close to each other at a rally,” he said.
In an unhinged closing argument, Spencer, who is representing himself, again continued a victim narrative he has repeatedly tried to sell to the jury throughout the trial. Spencer, who was not a member of the Discord server, tried to argue that people the plaintiffs argued worked as his proxies were merely friends or regretful acquaintances.
Spencer argued that he was a victim of an attempt to silence free speech because many found his racist views to be controversial and deeply offensive.
“We really, in this case, do run the risk of encroaching on free speech and simply declaring that any form of White Nationalism is criminal,” he said, continuing on a tangent unrelated to the conspiracy allegations before he was cut off by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon.
The defendant went on to compare himself alternately to both a scapegoat and Jesus Christ, again prompting Moon to interrupt him. Spencer verbally sparred with Moon, telling the judge not to interrupt him and arguing that “you can’t cut me off for using poetry!”
William ReBrook, counsel for the National Socialist Movement and Jeff Schoep, its ex-leader and purportedly ex-white supremacist, also made an unusual argument, comparing the conspiracy allegations to those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. ReBrook quickly got back on course, arguing that his clients were not a part of the Discord server and did not know Fields.
Josh Smith, attorney for the Traditionalist Worker Party and its leaders, Matthew Heimbach and Matthew Parrott, pushed back against earlier arguments from the plaintiffs that the defendants used doublespeak to hide their intentions. His clients were open about their views, Smith said, views that included hatred of “the organized Jewish community,” and which looked on Black people as lesser than their white counterparts.
Smith ended his argument by showing a video made by the Traditionalist Worker Party on behalf of the Nationalist Front, a coalition associated with the Unite the Right rally that also included all the other corporate defendants. The propaganda video served as a advertisement for the rally and referenced a variety of unsupported white supremacist dog whistles, including claims of white cultural genocide.
But it was Fields’ attorney, Dave Campbell, who gave perhaps the most unusual and apologetic closing argument, focusing on the financial compensation requested by the plaintiffs. Campbell argued in detail about the financial requests, urging the jury to consider the plaintiffs' request individually and to consider the difference in their injuries.
“Let me begin discussing the compensatory damages with you by saying that literally my job is to make an argument to you as to the damages and that's going to come off as minimizing the pain and suffering that these plaintiffs have suffered as a result of the actions of Mr. Fields,” he said. “That is literally my job, so please, bear that in mind as you listen to the closing arguments.”
The longest and least coherent argument came from Cantwelll, who has been away from the federal prison where he has been serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for another charge and been staying at a nearby correctional facility. The neo-Nazi podcaster has been representing himself for the duration of the trial after being unable to find an attorney willing to represent him due to his conduct.
Throughout the trial, Cantwell has focused less on distancing himself from the conspiracy and allegations, instead focusing on a purported antifa conspiracy to harm him. That trend continued Thursday, as the defendant attempted to undermine plaintiff testimony about injuries through video evidence.
Following defense closing arguments, Dunn gave a rebuttal argument in the last 15 minutes of the day, highlighting the fact that the violence only had to be “reasonably foreseeable,” per conspiracy law. Given the conversations around striking protesters with vehicles, Dunn argued the evidence showed the defendants should have reasonably foreseen Fields’ type of violence.
Additionally, Dunn said that, per conspiracy law, all someone has to do to be part of a conspiracy is join an action at one point. All the defendants do not have to be involved at the same time and a single action can be sufficient, she argued.
“Conspiracy is a legal concept, you can't just scream and yell and wave your arms and say ‘There's no conspiracy,’ because the law actually says what a conspiracy is,” she said.
The case wrapped at 5 p.m. Thursday and the jury will begin deliberating Friday morning. It is unknown yet whether verdicts will be reached by day’s end Friday.