Rally lawsuit defendants Chris Cantwell and Richard Spencer asked for charges against them to be dismissed Tuesday, but the judge refused, forcing the pair to make their best argument that their intentions in August 2017 were non-violent.
After the plaintiffs rested their case, Spencer and Cantwell requested a rule 50 dismissal, which allows for a judge to dismiss a defendant from a case if the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find the defendant guilty.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon denied the motions, citing a requirement to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs and to disregard any evidence that the defendants might put on to the contrary.
“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 said. “Then Mr. Spencer responded “It’s worth it, at least to me.’”
Taken at face value, Moon said that interaction alone could be interpreted to mean that the two defendants coordinated coming to Charlottesville to commit acts of violence.
Moon cited several other pieces of evidence, including a cache of weapons Cantwell brought with him to Charlottesville in August 2017. Moon also referenced Cantwell’s two convictions for assaulting two anti-racist protesters at the torch march.
“You’ve got an explanation for all these things, but there’s no self defense after you’re not in danger. Just because somebody hits you, that doesn’t give you the right to beat them to death or beat them within an inch of their life,” Moon said. “There’s no self defense whatsoever for anything Mr. Fields did, just absolutely nothing to justify that.”
Again citing his obligation to look at the current evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, Moon said there was plenty of evidence that could be used to find Cantwell and Spencer guilty. Moon also again informed Spencer and Cantwell that they did not need to be an active part of planning a conspiracy to be considered part of one.
“You don’t have to do very much, just get in there and go along with it and support and you’re part of the conspiracy,” he said. “You have a misunderstanding of what the law of conspiracy is. It’s a long instruction, but I’ve read it many times.”
Despite the failure to be dismissed from the case, Spencer and Cantwell both presented defenses on their own behalf Tuesday afternoon. Both defendants are representing themselves after being unable to find attorneys to represent them. Because of that, Moon previously indicated he is giving the two wider latitude than the defense attorneys. This has presented logistical issues.
Taking the stand as his own witness, Spencer attempted to portray himself as a victim of violence. He played for the jury a few videos he took on Aug. 12, 2017. In one of the videos, Spencer can be heard pushing back against police officers ordering him to leave the site of the rally following the declaration of an unlawful assembly.
“It’s almost as if the police planned this out, to let us come in and then they didn’t let us go to the podium to speak,” Spencer said. “What’s most likely to happen in life is that you have to improvise, you have to expect the unexpected. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. I never imagined that I was going to be attacked by militarized police.”
In a surprising move, Spencer also played audio from an outburst he had following the declaration of an unlawful assembly. Lawyers for the plaintiffs had previously played the audio clip for the jurors to depict an unhinged Spencer on a profanity-laced tirade among other key rally figures.
“I rule the f——— world, those pieces of s—- get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them,” Spencer said in the audio clip. “That’s how the f——— world works. We are going to destroy this f——- town.”
As Spencer did earlier when the plaintiffs’ lawyers first presented the clip, Spencer argued yesterday that it did not accurately represent who he was. He likened it to a childish outburst.
Following Spencer’s testimony, Cantwell was given the opportunity to present his own defense.
Cantwell argued that he was trying to avoid violence in Charlottesville in 2017. As evidence, he offered an unaired clip of him talking to a reporter the weekend of the rallies.
“If they attack us and we hurt them, we’ll go on trial and we’ll be convicted because they’ll pack our jury with Blacks and communists,” Cantwell said in the clip.
Throughout the trial Cantwell has referenced hours of footage he took on a body camera that he believes will exonerate him. Though he previously floated the idea of showing the hours of footage in full, the court and other attorneys appear to have talked him into showing smaller, relevant portions.
The first audio clip involved Cantwell meeting up with listeners of his podcast in a Walmart parking lot in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. Though he argued Tuesday that he took precautions to avoid the location leaking, Cantwell said some uninvited people showed up and the police arrived after receiving a report that he had pulled a gun on someone.
The footage would have exonerated him, Cantwell said, but the police declined to view it and left after they were unable to find the complainant.
At the torch march later that night, Cantwell claimed that he saw one of the people who had confronted him earlier among the counter-protesters at the base of the UVa Thomas Jefferson statue. Cantwell said he asked the person if they were the one who called in the report against him. Cantwell claimed the person nodded yes.
“That made me both angry and afraid and so, not wanting to get into a fight, I walked away,” Cantwell said.
However, Cantwell’s purported desire to avoid violence did not last long. Footage depicted the defendant using pepper-spray to assault at least two people.
Though he claimed Tuesday this was an action of self-defense, Cantwell pleaded guilty in July 2018 to two charges of assault when he pepper-sprayed Emily Gorcenski and Kristopher Goad.
Originally indicted on charges of felony illegal use of gas Cantwell’s counts were amended to misdemeanor assault as part of a plea agreement. Additionally, per the agreement, Cantwell is barred from the state; is not to possess a firearm in Virginia; and is to have no direct or indirect contact with the victims, including mentioning them on social media or his podcast.
However, that barred contact does not apply to the court proceedings, and throughout the trial Cantwell has repeatedly mentioned his victims, focusing in particular on Gorcenski. Apparently undeterred by none of the plaintiffs knowing much about Gorcenski, Cantwell attempted to again bring her into the case Tuesday, showing a video she shot of the torch march.
Now in its fourth week, the Sines v. Kessler trial brought back to Charlottesville more than a dozen key organizers and participants of the deadly Unite the Right rally and preceding University of Virginia torch march.
Over the course of 13 days, the plaintiffs and their attorneys presented hundreds of pieces of evidence, seeking to prove allegations that the defendants conspired to come to Charlottesville and commit racist acts of violence.
When court resumes at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, the remaining defendants are expected to present their arguments. If all goes according to schedule, then the parties will present closing arguments Thursday, and the jury will deliberate Friday.