A jury began deliberations on 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, Virginia, four years ago.
The jury in US District Court in Charlottesville is being asked to decide whether two dozen white supremacists, neo-Nazis and white nationalist organisations are responsible for violence during two days of demonstrations in 2017.
Jurors will also decide if the accused are liable for compensatory and punitive damages for nine people who were physically hurt or emotionally scarred by the violence.
Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville on August 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 counter-protesters, 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 attack. He is named in the lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages and a judgment that the accused 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 abuses.
During closings arguments on Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiffs told jurors that the accused “planned, executed and then celebrated” racially motivated violence that killed one counter-protester and injured dozens over the course of the two days.
Lawyers 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 counter-protesters.
The lawyers for the accused used their closing arguments to distance themselves from Fields, telling jurors that injuries suffered by the plaintiffs do not prove that the accused entered into a conspiracy to commit violence.
The accused 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 of the accused have said that they resorted to violence only after they or their associates were attacked, blaming 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 organisation.