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Plaintiffs' attorneys move to rest their case against Unite the Right organizers

Building entrance
The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Charlottesville, where the white nationalist organizers of 2017's Unite the Right rally are standing trial. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Attorneys for Charlottesville residents who sued the white nationalist organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally will soon wrap up their case. Meanwhile, one defendant's attorney told VPM they’re worried they’re running out of time to make theirs. 

Elizabeth Sines, the namesake of the Sines v. Kessler case, is the last of the plaintiffs to testify Friday, Nov. 12.

Over the last three weeks of the month-long trial, plaintiffs presented arguments that the defendants, more than 20 white nationalist individuals and organizations, have expressed racist, homophobic, and antisemitic ideologies. They’ve introduced depositions, audio, video and online chats of the organizers discussing violence and sharing veneration for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime, the Third Reich.

The court has endured countless references to “gassing” Jewish people, white supremacist comments about the intelligence of Black people, as well as purported “jokes” about injuring and killing anti-racist protesters.

But it remains to be seen whether the jury will be convinced that the abhorrent language and planning in those discussions constituted specific arrangements to commit  racist violence on the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12. 

The plaintiffs, nine former and current Charlottesville residents, are asking for unspecified monetary damages and a court order barring the defendants from future civil rights violations. They must prove, based on a preponderance of evidence, that the defendants conspired to commit racially motivated violence.

The court has also heard from the plaintiffs themselves, all of whom were injured in some way during the rally. They’ve described the physical, psychological and financial toll the events caused them.

The court heard from plaintiffs' second and final expert witness Thursday. Dr. Peter Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University, studies hate crimes and hate groups and is an expert on white supremacist tools and tactics. He’s spent the last three years sifting through the overwhelming evidence presented in the case.

“Violence is at the core,” he said. “You can't really detach, disassociate the white supremacist movement from violence.”

Simi described how defendants and their allies used “double speak” to promote their goals, defining “double speak” as a strategy intended to simultaneously reveal and conceal the meaning of words so that communications that otherwise might draw legal or social sanctions seem innocuous to outsiders.

Amy Spitalnik, with Integrity First for America -- the organization that’s backing the lawsuit -- says the tactics are clear.

“When there’s discussions or memes of hitting protestors with cars and then protestors are hit with cars and these extremists claim that the memes were just jokes, it’s a very deliberate tactic,” she said. “It’s a way of having plausible deniability.”

Plaintiffs attorneys have provided evidence that rally organizers urged those who planned to attend the rally to wipe servers, delete social media accounts and use “burner” phones to communicate about the event.

Defendant Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi podcast and radio host, has used the trial as a platform to discuss his ideology and air conspiracy theories. He’s serving a sentence in federal prison for unrelated charges and is representing himself in the trial. During cross examinations, Cantwell has attempted to glean information from witnesses and plaintiffs for, ostensibly, his private dealings outside of the trial. Plaintiffs argue he plans to use the information to retaliate against adversaries.

Cantwell has tried relentlessly to tie plaintiffs and witnesses, many of whom had never heard of Antifa prior to the 2017 rally, to the antifascist movement.

He’s  had more time to cross-examine plaintiffs’ witnesses than other defendants’ attorneys. Joshua Smith, an attorney for defendants Matthew Heimbach and Matthew Parrott, founder and co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said Cantwell’s prominent role in the trial is part of a broader strategy. The court gives more deference to non-attorneys who are representing themselves because they aren’t as familiar with the law. He said Cantwell can make statements and question witnesses in a way that other attorneys would not be permitted to do.

The defense will bring their own witnesses to the stand once the plaintiffs rest their case.

Smith said he’s concerned about the pacing of the trial and whether defendants will be able to present their case before the Nov. 19 deadline. He said they have roughly 10 witnesses they plan to call to the stand.

However, the plaintiffs have already called many of the defendants as adverse witnesses, so that may cut down on the time their attorneys will need to question them.

“Really, I feel like it would be totally fine to just give the case to the jury right now,” Smith said. “They've heard plenty. They get it. But obviously, the defense has to put on their case.”

Judge Norman K. Moon has been steadfast in his pattern of ending hearings at 5 p.m. promptly every day. But he chose this week to hold court during the Veterans Day holiday which may indicate the trial is falling behind schedule.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Peter Simi would be the final witness for the plaintiffs, but one more was later brought to the stand. Dr. Nadia Webb, a neuropsychiatrist, evaluated the medical records of plaintiffs for evidence of psychological harm and traumatic brain injuries. The story has been updated to correct the error.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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