Plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler federal lawsuit, including lead plaintiff Elizabeth Sines, a 2019 University of Virginia School of Law alumna, have claimed a significant victory against white supremacists who organized the infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
A jury convened by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia returned a verdict Tuesday of liability under Virginia law, for both civil conspiracy and racial, religious and ethnic harassment. The result was an award of more than $25 million for the nine plaintiffs.
Although the jury deadlocked on a verdict for two federal conspiracy claims, centering on the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the plaintiffs can return to court to pursue the claims.
“I admire the bravery of the people who brought this lawsuit, several of whom were UVA students, who stood up to the white supremacists who organized this rally and the organizations they represent – despite the harassment and vitriol they knew they would face for doing the right thing,” UVA President Jim Ryan said in a statement after the verdict.
“Our single greatest hope is that today’s verdict will encourage others to feel safer raising our collective voices in the future to speak up for human dignity and against white supremacy,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.
Sines added in a personal note to the Law School, “I am so grateful for the never-ending support the UVA Law community has shown me over these four years. It has meant the world to me and made me all the more proud to be a UVA Law alum.”
Attorneys with the advocacy group Integrity First for America represented the plaintiffs.
“This case has sent a clear message: violent hate won’t go unanswered,” IFA Executive Director Amy Spitalnick wrote in a statement after the verdict. “There will be accountability.”
The jury heard closing arguments on Thursday and went into deliberation on Friday, tasked with determining if the more than two dozen individuals or groups, including primary organizers Jason Kessler and Richard B. Spencer, had deprived the plaintiffs of their civil rights under the act.
Judge Norman K. Moon, a 1962 alumnus of the Law School, presided over the trial, which heard opening statements Oct. 28.
The plaintiffs provided evidence that they suffered mental and physical trauma from a conspiracy to commit violence, which resulted in the death of a local woman, Heather Heyer, and injuries to the plaintiffs and others due to an attack by car on Aug. 12, 2017, and in various other street brawls. The violence began the day before, when defendants helped lead a throng of protestors who stormed UVA’s campus. The group wielded tiki torches and chanted racist slogans such as “Jews will not replace us!” They cornered and fought counter-protestors.
On social media, websites and invitation-only platforms such as Discord, “[The defendants] talked a lot about the kind of violence they expected to foresee,” Professor Micah Schwartzman, director of the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, told CNN during deliberations.
Plaintiff Sines, who witnessed both days of violence, testified on Nov. 12 that the car attack by James Fields Jr. was a contributor to post-traumatic stress she has experienced. She described the terrifying sound.
“It sounded like if you would take a metal baseball bat and slide it across a wooden fence,” she said, as quoted by CBS19. “Sounds like thuds. You could hear it before you saw it.”
Sines was not struck by the car. She was swept out of the way by roommate Leanne Chia, a 2019 Law School graduate. Other plaintiffs were injured, however. Two were close friends with Heyer.
Integrity First for America bills itself as “a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to holding those accountable who threaten longstanding principles of our democracy – including our country’s commitment to civil rights and equal justice.”
Spitalnick said in an interview before verdict that the violence was orchestrated and that accountability matters.
“Over the course of this trial, our plaintiffs presented overwhelming evidence that the violence was no accident, and that the extremists and hate groups responsible should be held accountable,” Spitalnick said. “It’s all the more crucial to illustrate that there will be consequences for violent hate at a moment of rising extremism and major threats to our democracy. Even before trial, this case imposed significant financial, legal and operational costs on the defendants for flagrantly flouting the rule of law. This trial has allowed our plaintiffs to tell the full, horrific story of Unite the Right — and exposed the hateful, violent tactics at the core of how the white supremacist movement operates.”
She said she was grateful for the bravery of those who came forward to sue.
“There are not sufficient words to describe the honor of supporting these courageous plaintiffs, who chose to relive their trauma to hold accountable those responsible.”
Plaintiff attorneys Roberta A. Kaplan and Karen L. Dunn echoed those thoughts in a statement that followed the verdict, saying their clients were injured because “they dared to stand up for their values.”
The Karsh Center co-hosted a Nov. 2 panel that discussed the trial’s implications, including hearing from UVA Law professors Leslie Kendrick, an expert on First Amendment speech, and John C. Jeffries Jr., an expert on criminal law, constitutional law and federal courts.
The professors spoke about the niche area of law being invoked under the Civil Rights Act: 42 USC 1985(3). The provision is alternately referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. It permits citizens to bring civil claims against each other for denial of civil rights.
While the defendants argued that their words were constitutionally protected, Kendrick noted the difference between protected speech and conspiratorial planning during the talk.
“Conspiracy is inherently a crime that is speech-based, in most instances,” Kendrick said. “It’s very hard to evidence agreement without relying on words, as evidence. Nevertheless, conspiracy is routinely prosecuted in courts across the nation without people giving it a second thought. Most conspiracy crimes don’t even raise First Amendment concerns for the court, for the actors. Public defenders trying to defend someone on a drug conspiracy charge raising the First Amendment, in the vast majority of cases, would get laughed out of court.”
Jeffries observed that the white supremacists, some of them serving time, may not possess much in the form of financial assets, essentially making them “judgment-proof.” He expressed his view that their inability to fully pay, however, would be beside the point.
“Financially, this litigation, seems to me, likely to be a dry hole,” Jeffries said. “But as a public statement, as proof of the illegal intentions of the event organizers, as a way of laying to rest for good and all, any notion that these were, in President Trump’s words, ‘good people,’ on the other side, this litigation may be crucially important.”
The court’s decision is subject to appeal.
Sines elaborated on her reasons for serving as plaintiff to the lawsuit in a 2018 interview with the Virginia Law Weekly.
“I never want anything like this to happen again,” she said. “No one should have to go through what the residents of Charlottesville have gone through this past year. I joined the lawsuit because Black lives matter, because antisemitism is on the rise around the world and cannot be left unchecked, and because white supremacy is a disease. White supremacy will not go away by itself. And the fight against white supremacy must be waged everywhere – in our homes, in the voting booth, in our schools, the streets, and in the courts. Everywhere.”