Chris Cantwell, a prolific neo-Nazi podcaster and former rally lawsuit defendant, is again seeking to paint himself as a victim and have the Sines v. Kessler jury verdict set aside or be re-tried.
Cantwell was among the more than dozen defendants found responsible for conspiring to come to Charlottesville and commit acts of violence during the weekend of the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
For his role in the conspiracy, a federal jury ordered Cantwell to pay approximately $700,000 in damages. The bulk of the damages were directed at James Alex Fields, whose car attack killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens, including many of the plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler case.
Well-known for his violently racist political rhetoric, Cantwell was unable to find representation prior to trial and acted as his own attorney during the monthlong trial in Charlottesville’s federal court. Because Cantwell is currently serving a multiyear sentence for crimes unrelated to the lawsuit, he has repeatedly argued that he is at a disadvantage and, at one point, requested a separate, delayed trial.
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In a recent motion Cantwell again raised this argument, but additionally argued that his imprisonment is not the primary reason and that the jury verdict “borders on incoherent.”
“The trial went over schedule because exposing the lies of the plaintiffs proved both necessary and time consuming,” Cantwell wrote. “This left the jury pressed to reach a verdict on the day before the eve of a holiday. They clearly rushed and the parties and court joined them in doing so for similar reasons.”
The 27-page motion, written in questionably legible handwriting, alleges a swath of other things, including that the awarding of damages is intended to have a relation to compensatory damages, per Supreme Court precedent.
For three days, the 11-person jury mulled over a litany of claims in the federal civil conspiracy lawsuit, ceding to a deadlock after being unable to reach a unanimous decision on two key federal conspiracy counts. The two federal counts stemmed from the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, passed in the wake of the Civil War as a means of combating the KKK’s influence.
Despite the deadlock, the jury did find that, per Virginia law, all the individual and corporate defendants had conspired per a state law. It ordered them to pay $1 in compensatory damages to each of the nine plaintiffs, save Elizabeth Sines and Seth Wispelwey. Additionally, the jury ordered the individual defendants to pay $500,000 in punitive damages and each corporate defendant to pay $1 million.
Defendants Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, Elliott Kline, Robert “Azzmador” Ray and Cantwell were ordered to pay an additional $200,000 each for racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence committed against plaintiffs Natalie Romero and Devin Willis.
Because the jury did not reach a decision on these two claims a second trial may happen, which counsel for the plaintiffs have indicated they plan to pursue.
Cantwell’s recent motion highlights the jury’s deadlock on the two federal conspiracy claims and calls for a great deal of inferences into the jury’s intention and thought process.
At one point, Cantwell attempts to argue that he does not owe plaintiff Willis any compensatory damages because he ran out of pepper spray on the night of the 2017 University of Virginia torch march and proceeded to punch a different, unarmed counter-protester.
“Even if Cantwell exceeded the boundaries of self defense, or failed to meet the burden of such an affirmative legal defense, it remains uncontested that Cantwell’s motives that night were entirely race neutral that evening, so far as use of force is concerned,” Cantwell wrote about his attack on anti-racist protesters.
Despite many of his arguments being surprisingly technical, Cantwell’s motion does delve into familiar territory, dredging up old arguments and accusing plaintiff Wispelwey of being a “fake priest.” Wispelwey, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and co-founder of Congregate Charlottesville, was the subject of much of Cantwell’s arguments over the trial as the defendant attempted to argue that the plaintiff was part of “antifa.”
In the closing argument of his motion Cantwell again argues that Wispelwey and the other defendants are “antifa,” — a term usually meant to loosely group together leftist protesters who oppose facism.
“Antifa is not a protected class,” Cantwell wrote. “The plaintiffs are antifa.”
Cantwell argues that the jury decision to not award Wispelwey and lawsuit namesake Elizabeth Sines any compensatory damages indicates they believed the plaintiffs were “plainly dishonest.” Cantwell also again pushes the argument that the plaintiffs should have seen that members of the crowd of counter-protesters struck by Fields were “wielding weapons” and accuses them of lying about not remembering seeing any weapons.
“The court now has occasion to assess the credibility of witnesses and justice clearly demands that the defendants not be held liable for a fraud upon this court by an armed mob,” he wrote.
Cantwell’s legal motions were frequent and broad in the weeks leading up to the trial and stood in stark contrast to his previous inexperienced pro se efforts, leading to an accusation from the plaintiffs that he was receiving outside counsel. However, it appears no consequences have resulted from the accusation.
Counsel for the plaintiffs has not yet responded to Cantwell’s motion but have until Feb. 7 to file their motion in opposition.