One of the more controversial things Donald Trump ever said was that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent protests that erupted during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. (Nineteen were injured and one was killed that day when a white nationalist named James Fields plowed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter protesters.) Trump’s remark was roundly condemned, his approval rating plummeted, members of his cabinet considered resigning, and Joe Biden cited it as the moment he decided to challenge Trump in 2020, calling the sentiment a “threat to this nation… unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
Yet, four years later, as a civil trial begins in Charlottesville, jury selection has revolved around finding 12 people who, essentially, agree with Trump’s assessment. Jurors are have been grilled over whether they harbor any bias against either the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville or the counter protestors — and, if they do, questioned about whether that they can suspend their preconceived notions about who was responsible for the violence and whether or not it was premeditated. The trial is expected to last four weeks.
“I am biased against the defense,” one prospective juror told the court Tuesday, one prospective juror told the court Tuesday, referring to the 14 men and 10 far-right organizations accused of sparking the violence. “I believe they are evil, I believe their organizations are evil, and I would find it difficult to set that aside,” he said. The juror was dismissed. The exchange, though, illustrates just how difficult it will be for the lawyers for the victims to impanel and convince a jury that white nationalists conspired to commit the racially-motivated violence that took place in Charlottesville four years ago. Nearly everyone who has admitted to harboring any negative feelings about white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville have been challenged by the defendants lawyers or dismissed for cause.
Lawyers for both sides have attempted to suss out potential bias with their own litmus tests. Prospective jurors have been questioned about their views on Black Lives Matter (“It’s just irritating,” one prospective juror said about BLM signs she encounters from time to time. “It should be ‘all lives matter.’”), whether or not Confederate monuments should come down (“I think it’s wrong to change the history,” another prospective juror said), and antifa (one called antifascists a “terrorist organization”; another said antifa was “most likely” responsible for the violence that took place in Charlottesville).
Lawyers for the victims are planning to use a 1871 law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act in an effort to prove the defendants conspired to cause racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville. But if the first two days of jury selection are any indication, attorneys have their work cut out for them. Once they are able to find a full slate of jurors from the Charlottesville area who can credibly claim they have no strong view about the events that rocked the city four years ago, they’ll have to navigate a trial in which two of the white nationalists accused of violence — Christopher Cantwell and Richard Spencer — are representing themselves in court.
Cantwell, who earned the nickname “Crying Nazi” for an emotional video he recorded responding to the fallout after the rally, was nearly removed from the proceedings before they began. The New Hampshire man, who has been serving a 41-month sentence in an Illinois federal prison for threatening and extorting the leader of an online group that idolizes the Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, has complained in hand-written notes submitted to the court about the “comically limited resources at my disposal” to prepare for jury selection and trial. (Cantwell was transferred to the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, Virginia for the duration of the proceedings.) Lawyers for the victims, wary Cantwell would attempt to leverage his difficulties as part of an appeal, asked for Cantwell to be severed from the case, but Judge Norman Moon denied the motion Monday.
Both Cantwell and Spencer — neither of whom are lawyers — have struggled in the first two days of jury selection. At one point, Cantwell complained that he didn’t have his witness list; at another, he and Spencer complained about being forced to share a binder of juror questionnaires.
Cantwell and Spencer, though, seemed aligned in their view of who would constitute an unsympathetic juror. Both raised objections to a juror who said he believed white people can’t be the victim of racism. Cantwell called that an “extreme view… classic critical race theory talk,” while Spencer raised concerns about the same juror’s “endorsement of antifa.” The judge refused to ask one prospective juror — an older black man — a question that Cantwell posed because the judge deemed it “insulting.” (Cantwell, it seemed from later back and forth with the judge, wanted to ask a question about the man’s cognitive ability.) Spencer objected to a different prospective juror, a black woman, even as he acknowledged, “I can’t really articulate a case against this person.”
Lawyer James Kolenich, who is representing Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler as well as the SPLC-designated white nationalist organization Identity Evropa and its founder, Nathan Damigo, expressed frustration with Cantwell and Spencer in court Tuesday, saying “I have no idea what these two think they’re doing,” and complaining it was “difficult” to work beside them. Kolenich, who was Cantwell’s lawyer before he reportedly failed to pay the attorney for his work, has said in the past he took on this case “to oppose Jewish influence in society.” (On Tuesday, Kolenich was also advocating for two other defendants — the National Socialist Movement and its former leader Jeff Schoep. Edward ReBrook, the lawyer of record for Schoep and NSM, was admitted to the emergency room this morning.)
Opening arguments in the case are set to begin Wednesday.
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