It was a legal Hail Mary attempt that failed spectacularly.
Two white supremacists defending themselves in the Charlottesville federal court on Tuesday had their motions to dismiss a lawsuit against them due to lack of evidence shot down by a judge, who said the plaintiffs had shown proof that they had conspired to commit racially motivated violence at the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.
After the plaintiffs rested their case following three weeks of powerful and often heart-wrenching testimony, notorious alt-right leader Richard Spencer and neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell told Judge Norman Moon they hadn’t seen any evidence to suggest they were part of any conspiracy, nor any to prove they had been violent. In fact, they claimed, they had been victims of targeted violence from left-wing “antifa” counterprotesters at the rally they organized to promote “white rights” and an “ethno-state.”
The request made by Spencer and Cantwell allows a judge to dismiss a case if they deem there was not enough evidence presented in court to support a guilty verdict.
But Moon told the white supremacists there had been plenty of evidence, and that the court was required to view it all in “light most favorable to the plaintiffs.”
“How this looks from the standpoint of the law is that in the days leading up to ‘Unite the Right’ you exchanged text messages with defendant Spencer in which you stated, ‘I’m willing to risk a lot for our cause, including violence and incarceration. Many in my audience would follow me there, but I want to coordinate and make sure it’s worth it for our cause,’” Moon told the defendants, reading their own messages to each other back to them in court. “Then Mr. Spencer responded, ‘It’s worth it, at least to me.’”
That exchange alone, Moon said, could be enough for a jury to reasonably decide whether the men conspired to commit racially motivated violence. But he presented several other examples of the men speaking with each other about their plans to commit acts of violence in Charlottesville four years ago, including Cantwell discussing the several firearms he had brought with him to the rally.
Moon, a straight-shooting 84-year-old with a thick Virginia accent, reminded Spencer and Cantwell how a conspiracy is determined.
“You don’t have to do very much. You just get in there, be there, go along with it, support it. You're part of the conspiracy,” Moon told them. “You have a misunderstanding, I’m afraid, of what conspiracy is. It’s a long instruction, but I read it several times [in court].”
Moon dismissed the motions and told the defendants to proceed with their cases.
Spencer and Cantwell, both without lawyers, spent most of Tuesday afternoon conducting direct examinations of themselves that often veered into the bizarre.
Spencer tried to read a lengthy, racist manifesto before Moon scolded him and ordered him to just summarize it. Spencer — who became famous for a 2016 video in which he told a crowd of neo-Nazis “Hail Trump!” — told the jury he was trying to show them that he was “flawed” but not violent.
“I am not claiming to you that I have somehow seen the light, and I am now going to speak out against antiracism,” he said. “I am still, no doubt, an ideological radical.”
For his defense, Cantwell played a series of shaky videos from the “Unite the Right” torch march on Aug. 11, 2017. He also spouted conspiracy theories about counterprotesters who had allegedly followed him to a Walmart parking lot targeting him for violence.
In two especially surreal moments, Cantwell asked himself a question in court and then answered his own question.
Before the court adjourned Tuesday, the two sides agreed with Moon to set closing arguments for Thursday. The plaintiffs will get two and a half hours to present their final remarks to the jury, while the defense will get three and a half hours. Moon said he would like to see the jury have all of Friday to deliberate and hopefully come to a decision before the weekend.
The lawsuit, brought by the civil rights nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of nine plaintiffs, is using the 150-year-old Ku Klux Klan Act to try to hold 24 neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who organized the “Unite the Right” event accountable for what they claim was a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. The suit seeks unspecified damages for the mental and physical trauma the plaintiffs experienced four years ago.