As the two-year anniversary of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally approaches, many of the criminal cases have ended, but their broader impacts remain unclear.
The Aug. 12, 2017, rally, which resulted in bloodshed and death, received national and international attention and spurred more than two dozen criminal and civil trials on both the state and federal levels.
The most notable was the trial of James Alex Fields Jr., a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi from Ohio who was convicted in December of murdering counter-protester Heather Heyer and gravely injuring eight others. A jury recommended a life sentence plus 419 years; Fields is scheduled to be formally sentenced by a Charlottesville circuit judge on July 15.
On the federal level, Fields faced 30 hate crime charges; he pleaded guilty to 29 of them in April. Per a plea agreement, a first-degree murder charge that could have carried the death penalty was dropped. Fields will again face life in prison when he is formally sentenced by a magistrate judge in Charlottesville federal court on July 3.
* * *
Despite the racist intentions, chants and messages of many of the Unite the Right attendees, no hate crime charges were brought on a state level, and the FBI’s 2017 hate crime report did not include Heyer’s death or any of the injuries caused by Fields.
A representative from the Charlottesville Police Department clarified that, due in part to the length of the investigation, Fields’ crimes could not be classified as hate crimes during the 2017 report. However, an annual report from the Virginia State Police will be updated to reflect Fields’ hate crime charges when it is released this summer.
Kami Chavis, a professor of law and director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Wake Forest University School of Law, said that on a state level, hate crimes are often used as modifiers, which can add additional prison time and fines but are more difficult to argue. This may have contributed to decisions by the city commonwealth’s attorney’s office not to seek out hate crime charges.
Nationally, reports of hate crimes are on the rise, Chavis said, but it’s hard to tell whether this is because they’re happening more often or whether there’s more awareness.
“Are we in a space and time where awareness is heightened and investigators can begin to look at these crimes as hate crimes, or are there just more hate crimes happening? It’s unclear,” Chavis said.
In 2009, the list of protected classes was expanded by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Chavis said, which updated the 1969 federal hate crime law to include crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
This provides more avenues for prosecution on a federal level, Chavis said, but it does not necessarily affect how cases are tried in state courts.
Chavis said it can be hard to prove hate as a motivation. Nevertheless, the legal fallout of Unite the Right has drawn the attention of law experts.
“To my knowledge, there haven’t been any studies specifically into the impact of the crimes in Charlottesville, but they are certainly on our radars,” she said.
Anne Coughlin, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, said she has been disappointed with the criminal investigations into the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017.
While Coughlin said she believes charges should have been brought against the white supremacists who marched on UVa Grounds on Aug. 11, 2017, she pointed to several civil cases that have sprung from the rally as a path forward for justice.
Comparing it to the #MeToo movement, which has seen an explosion of women filing lawsuits against men in power who allegedly sexually assaulted or harassed them, Coughlin said civil actions allow complainants to seek justice in cases where they perceive the criminal justice system has not.
“The civil lawsuits from people involved in the #MeToo movement have allowed these women a venue for justice where the authorities have failed them,” she said. “But these cases can be very difficult and take much longer.”
* * *
The most high-profile of the Charlottesville civil cases is the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, filed in federal court in October 2017 by a group of area residents against organizers of and key participants in the Unite the Right rally.
The suit names various white supremacists and neo-Nazis as defendants and, according to filings from the plaintiffs, the case has been plagued by failures to comply with discovery requests from defendants. A trial date continues to be elusive.
Another federal suit involves Brennan Gilmore, a local activist who captured Fields’ deadly vehicle attack on video and soon thereafter drew the attention of various far-right elements. After he posted the video to Twitter, however, he was inundated with threats from people who believed he had helped to orchestrate the incident.
In March 2018, with the help of Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, Gilmore filed a defamation suit in federal court in Charlottesville against various individuals and entities, including Alex Jones, Infowars LLC, Free Speech Systems LLC and Rep. Allen B. West, R-Ga., who was later allowed to be dropped from the suit.
Gilmore alleges that Jones and other contributors to Jones’ right-wing TV show perpetuated conspiracy theories about him that led to people sending him death threats. Gilmore said Jones and the other defendants posted false statements about him on their websites.
In March, a U.S. magistrate judge ruled the case could proceed after the defendants had filed motions to dismiss the suit. No further hearings have been scheduled yet.
On a state level, Tadrint and Micah Washington, who were in a car that was hit during the Fields attack, filed a lawsuit three days after the event in Charlottesville Circuit Court. They are seeking $3 million in damages.
The sisters — who said they did not take part in any protesting that day — were on their way home when they found themselves being detoured down Fourth Street Southeast. They stopped at the intersection of Fourth and East Water streets to let a large group of counter-protesters cross the street.
When Fields’ Dodge Challenger flew down Fourth Street, it slammed into the sisters’ vehicle and the two were thrown into the dashboard and windshield and suffered serious injuries.
After languishing a long time, the lawsuit has a hearing scheduled for June 18.