CHARLOTTESVILLE — Christopher Cantwell, one of 24 white supremacists and their organizations being sued by the victims of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, fumbled his way around court without an attorney this week, interrupting proceedings, asking strange questions, and disagreeing with his fellow defendants.
No lawyer has been able to tolerate his antics, hate-filled online diatribes, puzzling motions he has filed himself, and confusing outbursts in pretrial hearings since the civil lawsuit against him and his codefendants was filed in October 2017.
“Mr. Cantwell has rendered Attorney’s continued representation of him unreasonably difficult, has created a conflict of interest between himself and Attorney’s other clients, and has engaged in conduct Attorneys consider ‘repugnant or imprudent,’” two of his former attorneys put it before dropping him.
So over the course of the trial, which is expected to last around four weeks, Cantwell will defend himself.
But he still had help preparing.
A man who spent five months with Cantwell in the same unit in a medium-security prison in Marion, Illinois, said Cantwell was inspired and emboldened by the polarizing messages emanating from Fox News — specifically Tucker Carlson. In a filing in the Charlottesville lawsuit, Cantwell specifically cites Carlson as someone with whom he shares many views.
Jarrett William Smith told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that a group of white supremacists had banded together behind bars. They learned about what was happening outside the prison walls and the political messaging of the day from the far-right outlet.
After “the whites,” as Smith called the group, finished their legal work for the day, the group would regularly go to a television room in the prison to watch Carlson’s evening program.
Cantwell, Smith said, felt emboldened by the TV host’s diatribes, and thought they echoed those he promoted and that helped fuel the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Those messages included ones about the “Great Replacement Theory,” a white supremacist delusion based on the bogus assumption that Democrats and liberal progressives are working to replace white people of European descent with non-European immigrants.
Cantwell’s affinity for Carlson is evident in a September 2019 filing in the Charlottesville case. In that document, Cantwell complains that the case “is motivated by a desire to silence not only me and my associates, but anyone who might dare to agree with us even on peripheral issues. This is evidenced by the President of the United States, and the 2nd most popular show in cable news (Tucker Carlson) being branded as ‘White Nationalists’ on account of sharing a small number of our views on the pressing issues of our time.”
Cantwell, who is being held in a regional jail and shuttled to and from court each day, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. BuzzFeed News sent a request to him via Joshua Smith, a lawyer for some of the other Charlottesville defendants, and did not hear back. Fox News and a spokesperson for Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.
And since June, Cantwell has received free advice and training in connection with his legal filings from two other incarcerated people at the Illinois prison where he has served time for threatening and attempting to extort another neo-Nazi’s wife. One of the men, a prominent white supremacist himself, has been assisting with some of his court filings, according to court documents and Cantwell himself.
The suit — brought in the Western District of Virginia by the nonprofit Integrity First for America and nine victims killed or injured in the violent rally — aims to win damages that will bankrupt Cantwell and the other defendants and dismantle their white nationalist organizations.
The men who helped Cantwell with his legal strategy are other white supremacists who are incarcerated in the same federal prison, Matthew Hale and William “Bill” White. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hale “earned a law degree from Southern Illinois University and successfully passed the bar exam” but “the Illinois State Bar Association deemed Hale unfit for practice due to his racial activism.” He was once also the leader of the World Church of the Creator, which the SPLC described as once being "one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in America.” It doesn’t appear that White, who started the American National Socialist Workers’ Party, has had any formal legal training.
Hale and White could not be reached for comment. (They are in prison in one of the country’s three communications management units. Introduced by the Bush administration after 9/11 as part of the government’s counterterrorism framework, CMUs restrict and monitor the communications of prisoners considered to be high-risk.) Lawyers for the men did not respond to requests for comment.
Hale was convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge in Chicago. In 2005, a court sentenced him to 40 years in prison. White was convicted of soliciting a hit online against a juror in Hale’s murder trial and was sentenced in 2013 to 42 months behind bars. He had time added to his sentence after being convicted of an attempt to extort money from his ex-wife and making threats against Florida officials.
Cantwell’s association with Hale and White was previously mentioned in a Raw Story report, citing public court documents filed by the plaintiffs in the Charlottesville case. But it was through Smith and other public court documents that BuzzFeed News has learned more about his legal studies while incarcerated.
Smith said he was housed with Cantwell, several other white supremacists, and a whole host of people whom he described as the “who’s who of people the US government didn’t like.” They included Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who sent explosives to Trump critics and prominent Democrats and received a 20-year prison sentence, and Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who’s serving a 25-year term for conspiring to sell weapons to terrorists internationally.
Smith was a US Army soldier stationed at Fort Riley and associated with an international neo-Nazi group in September 2019 when he was arrested and charged with distributing instructions on how to make bombs and improvised napalm. Prosecutors also accused him of plotting attacks on journalists and politicians, but later dropped the charges. He later pleaded guilty to the explosives charges and spent two years in federal prison, much of that time at Marion. He was released on Oct. 13, 2021, and ordered to spend a month in a halfway house in South Carolina.
Smith described acquainting himself with Cantwell and other white supremacists in his prison unit for companionship and protection from other factions.
The two of them bonded over their beliefs and politics, Smith said, as well as their legal troubles, which they both pin on far-left activists and the US government.
Smith said Cantwell often discussed the evidence to be used against him by the plaintiffs in the Charlottesville civil case with their group, and he sought advice from and went over legal strategy with Hale and White. Smith said the men spent a significant amount of time in the law section of their prison’s library researching their cases.
On Sept. 13, court records show, Cantwell filed a motion asking the court to allow White to serve as his lay counsel in the Charlottesville case. Among the reasons stated is Cantwell being “unlearned in the law and ‘legally illiterate.’” The filing included a “sworn declaration” from White confirming his assistance and claiming that he has acted as “lay counsel to many persons, primarily members of organizations and governments hostile or adversarial to the United States.”
In an Oct. 7 episode of the podcast So to Speak With Jared Howe, to which Cantwell called in from prison earlier this month, he described Hale and White as “two really smart guys in the communications management unit” who are “good to [him].”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have found him to be such a nuisance they filed an 11th-hour motion to sever him from the case and try him separately down the road, which the court ultimately declined.
Roberta Kaplan, a co-lead attorney for the Charlottesville plaintiffs, filed a motion two days after the podcast. In it she complained that Cantwell was “flooding the docket with even more ghost-written submissions” from White and highlighted that Cantwell had told the So To Speak host, “[White] has been helpful to me filing motions with the court … Could I do this without him? No.”
Kaplan requested that “any and all filings on behalf of Cantwell that were written by or with the aid of [...] White, Hale or any other ghostwriter be stricken” and that Cantwell be “explicitly forbidden” from using anyone as a ghostwriter in his filings going forward.
In a handwritten response to Kaplan filed Tuesday, Cantwell denied the ghostwriting allegations and said he took full responsibility for all motions filed under his name. “I do not know what constitutes ‘Ghostwriting’ by legal standards, but I do know that by a blogger's standard, the thoroughly collaborative efforts of Mr. White, Mr. Hale, and I, are not ‘Ghostwriting,’” he wrote.
Besides White, Cantwell also boasted about “communicating with somebody on the outside who was helping him write his stuff,” Smith said, referring to court motions in the Charlottesville case. Cantwell didn’t mention anyone other than Hale and White in his response.
In recent weeks, his fillings have appeared as nearly incomprehensible notes written in pencil on notebook paper. In his filing on Tuesday, Cantwell said he filed the handwritten documents because he didn’t have access to a working typewriter.
As jury selection came to a close on Wednesday and the sides were discussing opening arguments set for Thursday, Cantwell continued his unusual legal tactics, filing frivolous motions and speaking over the judge and others, and suggesting he’d show the jury a two-hour body camera video as part of his defense.