Christopher Cantwell’s case will stay in Albemarle County, despite concerns about potential jury bias, after a judge declined Wednesday to move the trial to a different venue.
Cantwell, 37, of Keene, New Hampshire, faces two charges of illegal use of a chemical agent after he was accused of using pepper spray during the chaos of a torch-lit march Aug. 11 at the University of Virginia, where white supremacists shouted, “Jews will not replace us.” Members of the group clashed with a small group of students standing at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda with signs reading “Black Lives Matter.”
In Albemarle Circuit Court, Cantwell’s attorney, Elmer Woodard, argued that his client is often accosted by people and receives threatening phone calls because of his political and ideological beliefs. Cantwell, who is well known in the white supremacist and other pro-white movements, produces the podcast “Radical Agenda,” an alt-right political talk show.
Woodard told the court he is concerned about “sleeper activists” who would try to get onto the jury in order to convict Cantwell of the charges against him. He said too many people in the Charlottesville and Albemarle area strongly dislike his client and are unlikely to be impartial.
“Impartiality is something we really gotta worry about,” Woodard said.
Judge Cheryl Higgins said the defense needed to show that pervasive prejudice within the county would prevent Cantwell from getting a fair trial. A jury does not necessarily have to be ignorant of a case to remain impartial.
Woodard also cited an issue of local media printing unfair articles about his client, which could affect the impartiality of any jury in the county. Bringing up an NBC29 article, he said that the story was “prejudicial and inflammatory” because it quoted Cantwell’s arrest warrant, rather than the sworn statement of the individual who sought the citizen warrant.
Looking at the article in question, Higgins said it appeared to be accurate and asked if it wouldn’t be better that the story used the language in the warrant, rather than from a statement written by the complainant. Woodard replied that NBC29’s story was less truthful because it cited the charges as they were stated in the arrest warrant, rather than the complaint.
After a nearly 2½-hour hearing Higgins took the motion under advisement, giving the court the option to move the case later if no jury can be found. Cantwell’s three-day trial is currently set to begin Feb. 12.
The defense also put forward two other motions: asking for a special prosecutor and an enlargement of Cantwell’s bond privileges.
Woodard argued for a special prosecutor for the case because he said there was the possibility he might want to call Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci as a witness. He said, depending on the answers of other witnesses, he would like to question Tracci about some of the previous testimony in the case at Cantwell’s preliminary hearing last year. He said it could cause a mistrial.
Higgins denied the motion and said Woodard’s argument was too speculative because he cannot predict what other witnesses will testify.
Higgins granted the motion to allow Cantwell — who is currently free on bond — to be able to move around the city limits of his residence in Virginia. It is unclear where Cantwell is currently residing.
Following the hearing, Christian Picciolini, of Chicago, stood outside of the courthouse and waited for Cantwell to come out. As Cantwell emerged from the courthouse behind his attorney and followed by Jason Kessler, Picciolini asked him for a word.
“You know my phone number, loser,” Cantwell replied.
Picciolini was once just like Cantwell, he said — he was recruited at 14 years old to join the Chicago Area Skinheads, America’s first neo-Nazi gang, before renouncing the movement in 1996.
“I helped recruit people, until I realized I was part of a charade — a deadly one,” Picciolini said. “And I started receiving compassion from the people I least deserved it from, when I least deserved it.”
In 2011, Picciolini co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit peace advocacy organization that works to help people leave hate groups. In January 2017, President Barack Obama’s administration gave the group $400,000 as part of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security Countering Violent Extremism Task Force. But the group did not receive the money under President Donald Trump’s administration; the grants were rerouted to law enforcement agencies.
Picciolini said he has tried many times to reach out to Cantwell, but has not had much luck getting through. Picciolini said he is particularly concerned about Cantwell because his podcast riles people and makes fun of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when a car rammed through a group of counter-protesters on Aug. 12.
To try to get through to people, including his efforts with Cantwell, Picciolini said he simply listens and asks if he can sit down for a conversation.
“I’m not about confrontation,” said Picciolini. “I don’t believe that punching a Nazi is going to change their minds. In fact, I think that probably makes them worse. So, I’m willing to listen and I’ve told him that many, many times and, apparently, he’s scared of something.”
“He may be scared of the truth,” he added. “Because I know what he knows. I used to believe that. But I also know it’s not true.”