Witnesses recall violence and hatred in civil trial of ‘Unite the Right’ organizers

Virginia News

This photo, taken on August 12, 2017, shows white supremacist James Fields driving into a crowd of counter-protesters. Fields injured dozens and killed Charlottesville local Heather Heyer. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — The first witnesses have been called to testify in Sines V. Kessler, a civil suit brought by victims of violence perpetrated by white nationalists in August 2019.

The plaintiffs allege that the defendants — including a wide array of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan leaders and alt-right figures — entered into a conspiracy to violate their civil rights. Private citizens can sue on those grounds under a reconstruction era law known as the “Ku Klux Klan” act.

In the Federal District Court of Charlottesville on Oct. 29, two witnesses were called and cross-examined by attorneys on both sides of the case. Natalie Romero and Devin Willis, who are both plaintiffs in the case, told the court their recollections of the two days that shocked the quiet college town.

The violence that weekend culminated in a car attack by white supremacist James Fields, who drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. Fields injured dozens, and killed Heather Heyer. He’s now serving two life sentences.

The central question of Sines V. Kessler is whether Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of ‘Unite the Right,’ and his co-defendants are responsible for the violence that resulted from the rally they organized.

In this Aug. 12, 2018 file photo, White nationalist Jason Kessler speaks at a rally near the White House on the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, FILE)

Romero was struck by Fields’ car, and told the court she suffered a head injury that left her in pain from constant headaches and interfered with her studies at UVA, where she was a student.

“It hurt to read,” she said. “It hurt to do anything, it hurt to focus.”

She and Willis also testified that they had been surrounded by white supremacist marchers the night before as they locked arms with other students and counter-protesters near the UVA campus. There, Romero and Willis said counter-protesters were pelted with lit tiki torches and pepper-sprayed by marchers shouting racist slogans.

“They were saying ‘blood and soil,’ ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘you will not replace us,'” Willis said.

During cross-examination, attorneys for the defense tried to establish whether Romero and Willis had actually seen their clients during the torchlight march on Aug. 11 or the violent clashes of Aug. 12.

Richard Spencer, acting as his own counsel, repeatedly attempted to establish whether Romero had seen him personally on either Aug. 11 or 12.

But in instructions to the jury, Judge Moon noted that “a defendant may be held liable even if he did not personally participate in the acts or plans of his co-conspirators or even if the defendant did not have actual knowledge of those acts or plans, so long as those acts or plans were reasonably foreseeable to the defendant.”

In her last answer to attorneys for the plaintiffs, Romero said she hoped the case would be able to resolve lingering fears and anxieties from the attack.

“I want closure,” she said, her voice cracking at times. “I want to move on. I want to be normal.”

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