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More than 4 years later, organizers of extremist Charlottesville rally face civil trial

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More than 4 years later, organizers of extremist Charlottesville rally face civil trial
Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally and one of several defendants in the civil trial, speaks to reporters at a demonstration near the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 12, 2018, one year after the Charlottesville event. File Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 27 (UPI) -- More than a dozen people and organizations behind the extremist "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., four years ago -- which descended into violence and led to the death of a counter-protester -- are the focus of a civil trial expected to begin in earnest on Wednesday.

Ten organizations and 14 people who set up the far-right rally in 2017 are named in a civil suit brought by 10 Charlottesville residents that argues the attacks against counter-protesters were premeditated.

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The extremist rally made national headlines for its racist overtones, the death of 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer and then-President Donald Trump's remarks later that there were "very fine people" who organized the event.

Jury selection began Monday and was expected to be completed by Wednesday. However, only 10 of the 12 jurors have been chosen. Wednesday will begin with more jury selection, but opening arguments might get underway before the end of the day.

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"I think we should be able to wrap this up by the afternoon and maybe continue on to opening statements," U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon said, according to Charlottesville's The Daily Progress.

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The trial, under federal rules, can proceed with only six jurors. Moon said previously that he'd be comfortable with 11.

On Aug. 12, 2017, a group of White nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered on the campus of the University of Virginia for the rally. They carried tiki torches and shouted racist phrases, including "Jews will not replace us." The event was partly a response to the city's decision to remove a monument honoring Civil War Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.

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That statue, and a few others, was finally removed in July.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in Charlottesville, Va., on August 12, 2017, while protesting against a White nationalist rally. Extremist James Fields hit Heyer when he intentionally drove his car into the crowd of protesters. Photo courtesy of Miller Law Group, PC

Protests at the park the following day led to violence between supporters and counter-demonstrators that ultimately killed Heyer, a Charlottesville paralegal who'd opposed the extremist movement.

One of the defendants in the civil suit is Heyer's killer and extremist James Alex Fields Jr., who will spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to federal hate crimes charges and admitting that he intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters that included Heyer.

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The defendants in the civil trial include prominent White nationalists and self-proclaimed members of the "alt-right," such as Richard Spencer, Christopher Cantwell, Jason Kessler, Elliot Kline, Nathan Damico, Matthew Heimbach, Jeff Schoep, Andrew Anglin and others.

"There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal clear at the outset -- the violence at Charlottesville was no accident," the civil complaint states. "The violence, suffering and emotional distress that occurred in Charlottesville was a direct, intended and foreseeable result of defendants' unlawful conspiracy."

First responders attend to wounded victims in Charlottesville, Va., on August 12, 2017, after James Fields intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters following the extremist "Unite the Right" rally. File Photo courtesy of Virginia State Police/UPI

A police helicopter that had been monitoring the rally and assisting with then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe's motorcade also crashed, killing two state troopers.

The plaintiffs' suit, which is backed by the nonprofit Integrity First for America, seeks an unspecified amount in monetary damages and hopes to dissuade anything like the Charlottesville rally from occurring again.

Integrity First for America Executive Director Amy Spitalnick told CNN the defendants planned the violence ahead of time in closed chats on the messaging app Discord.

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"They discussed everything in advance -- from what to wear, what to bring for lunch, how do you best sew a swastika onto a flag, how do you use free speech instruments to attack people," Spitlanick said.

"That is a racially motivated, violent conspiracy. And that's not anything that's protected by the First Amendment or by any other sort of right that people have."

The defendants have argued that the violence that followed the rally was not premeditated and that they acted in self-defense to protect themselves from counter-protesters.

"White nationalists conducting a legally sanctioned rally with a permit make for odd conspirators. What if nobody bothered to counter-protest? Who would their intended targets then be?" attorney Edward ReBrook, who represents three defendants, told CNN. "As conspiracies go, this one seems to have required a number of elements they couldn't control."

Spencer, who is representing himself in the civil trial, argues that he'd "never heard of" most of the other defendants and was never in contact with them -- even though there are records of text messages that show he'd communicated with Kessler and Kline about the event beforehand.

Social media companies that provided platforms where organizers coordinated the event have complied with subpoenas from the plaintiffs for digital records that detail the plans.

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Memorial to slain Charlottesville activist Heather Heyer

A message written with chalk in memory of Heather Heyer on the wall near the attack site. Photo by Erin Schaff/UPI | License Photo

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