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Two charges dismissed against Cantwell

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An Albemarle County judge on Thursday dismissed two charges against a prominent figure in the white nationalist movement following more than six hours of testimony and argument in a preliminary hearing.

Christopher Cantwell, 36, was charged with two counts of illegal use of tear gas, phosgene or other gases and one count of malicious bodily injury by means of a caustic substance or agent. The charges stemmed from clashes Cantwell had with protesters during the torch-lit march that occurred at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, the night before a violent white nationalist rally overtook Charlottesville’s downtown.

On Thursday morning, about 10 men wearing black polo-style shirts sat in the front row of seats in Albemarle General District Court to watch the hearing. Anti-racist supporters filled the back rows of the courtroom.

Cantwell, wearing a faded jail jumpsuit, sat next to his attorney, Elmer Woodard, who has represented other members of the alt-right arrested following the events of Aug. 12.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci called Kristopher Goad to the stand, who said he came to Charlottesville on Aug. 11 to attend a peaceful protest at UVa’s Rotunda. As he and a small group of counter-protesters stood in a circle around the statue of Thomas Jefferson, Goad said more than 300 protesters carrying torches came down the steps and surrounded them.

Soon after, he said, fighting broke out and a man referred to in court as “Beanie Man” was sprayed with some sort of substance. Goad said when the spray was deployed a second time, he felt the effects and began losing his vision and felt the skin on his face burning.

On cross-examination, Woodard asked Goad why he didn’t try to leave. Goad said he was surrounded by hundreds of people and could not see a safe path as his vision continued to be affected by the pepper spray.

“You didn’t try to say, ‘Excuse me,’” Woodard asked, as people in the courtroom laughed.

On Aug. 17, Goad said he swore out a warrant against Cantwell after he said he identified Cantwell through video footage from the event. He said he suffered bodily injury from the effects of Cantwell’s use of pepper spray.

Recently, however, Goad notified Tracci and said he could not be sure it was Cantwell’s spray that caused him harm. He said he was made aware of other people at the event using pepper spray.

Woodard made a motion to quash, or dismiss, the warrant against Cantwell, but the judge put it under advisement until after the preliminary hearing.

Tracci then called Emily Gorcenski, the second complainant in the case, to the stand. She said she went to the Rotunda on Aug. 11 to film the rally and is not a member of any group, including Antifa. Rather, she said, she helped with media relations and outreach for Charlottesville activists over the summer.

At one point, Gorcenski said, she found herself at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue, surrounded by more than 300 protesters, and was harassed for her gender — some of the torchbearers yelled, “You’re not a woman,” according to one of the videos played in court.

She said she then saw fighting break out and Cantwell deploy pepper spray against Beanie Man, before deploying a second amount against the counter-protesters standing behind him.

Gorcenski said she was affected by Cantwell’s pepper spray and tried to get out of the chaos to find medical help. Eventually, she said, she found help and filed a police report the next morning.

After asking the judge to strike all of the charges against his client — which was denied — Woodard called his own witnesses to the stand, which included a couple of men who attended the torch rally with Cantwell and said they saw Beanie Man attack one of their own, before charging towards Cantwell — leading him to use the pepper spray in self-defense.

Woodard then called Cantwell, who was billed as one of the speakers at the Unite the Right rally, to testify. On Aug. 11, he and some of his fellow torchbearers met at a Walmart where he said someone made a false police report about him brandishing a firearm.

Feeling nervous, he said he would not attend the event scheduled for later that night at UVa, unless they coordinated with law enforcement. When rally co-organizer Elliott Kline, also known as Eli Mosely, told Cantwell police would protect them from counter-protesters, Cantwell said he was willing to attend.

“I was on edge the entire time,” Cantwell said in court.

But when Cantwell and the hundreds of other torchbearers reached the Jefferson statue and saw about 40 counter-protesters standing there, he said police were not there to stay between the two groups. Soon after, a fight broke out.

“It was two groups of people who hated each other attacking each other,” Cantwell said.

As he got closer to the statue, Cantwell said he saw Beanie Man coming towards him in a threatening manner and decided to use his pepper spray against the man in self-defense. Cantwell said he often carries a weapon because he has received numerous death threats.

Ahead of the Aug. 12 event, Cantwell said he brought several firearms with him, including an AR-15 rifle and a Glock 19, but he did not bring any of them to Grounds. He also said he had “combat training,” citing a wrestling class he took in junior high school.

“If I run away every time someone threatens me, I wouldn’t ever get to go anywhere,” Cantwell said. “Everyone hates me.”

In his closing argument, Tracci said there was no question that Cantwell deployed pepper spray against people on Aug. 11, but that there was no reasonable claim for self-defense. Cantwell said he hated the counter-protesters, Tracci said, and was angry that people were trying to disturb his protest.

Woodard said Goad wrongly identified Cantwell as the person who sprayed him with pepper spray and that one of the charges of illegal use of tear gas should be dismissed based on that development. He also said Cantwell had every right to use the pepper spray if he felt himself to be in immediate danger.

Woodard also argued that Cantwell could not be charged with malicious bodily injury because the commonwealth did not present enough evidence that Gorcenski was injured by Cantwell’s deployment of pepper spray.

In the end, the judge agreed with Woodard on two points — that Goad is no longer certain Cantwell sprayed him and that there was no way for the court to determine if Cantwell caused Gorcenski malicious bodily injury.

The judge dismissed one of the counts of illegal use of gas and the count of malicious bodily injury by means of a caustic substance.

For the second charge of illegal use of gas, however, the judge said it is clear that Cantwell does not challenge that he deployed pepper spray multiple times, but there is enough of a question as to whether it was self-defense. The judge then certified the charge to circuit court.

Lauren Berg is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, lberg@dailyprogress.com or @LaurenBergK on Twitter.

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