Groups clash in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. A car at the rally that day rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

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A federal judge has cut by millions of dollars the damages that some of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists and hate groups owe for their role in 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville

Judge Norman K. Moon ordered last week that the $24 million awarded in punitive damages be reduced to $350,000, the limit imposed by a 1988 Virginia law. Moon also affirmed the jury-ordered compensatory damages of more than $2 million, bringing the total awarded damages to $2.35 million — a fraction of the $26 million a jury ordered in November 2021.

The 1988 law stipulates that juries should not be told of the $350,000 limitation and that if a jury returns a verdict over that limit, the judge will reduce it, according to court records.l

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said the severe reduction could undercut the purpose of punitive damages, which are meant to rebuke a defendant’s behavior.

“The whole point is to send a message to society, to other people who might engage in similar future behavior of that sort. And in this particular moment in time, that’s really important with the rise of white supremacists,” Tobias said. “That’s what’s really at stake.”

The lawsuit was brought by nine people who alleged physical harm and emotional distress during the August 2017 weekend of hate, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville. Among the defendants was a neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and striking four of the plaintiffs.

Moon, who had presided over the trial, also affirmedthe jury’s verdict in finding all defendants — which also included former alt-right leader Richard Spencer, rally organizer Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell, dubbed the “crying Nazi” — liable for conspiring to intimidate, harass or commit acts of violence during the rally.

Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan, co-lead counsel for the Charlottesville plaintiffs, said in a statement that they were “carefully considering” an appeal regarding the cap on punitive damages.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys had argued that even if the damages cap applied, it should only apply per plaintiff, meaning each of the eight plaintiffs seeking punitive damages would be awarded $350,000. Moon rejected that reasoning, according to his Dec. 30 order.

“Judge Moon’s lengthy opinion reviewing the mountain of evidence we introduced at trial and affirming the jury verdicts on the culpability of each and every defendant confirms what really happened — motivated by the tenets of white supremacy, defendants engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to commit violence in Charlottesville in August 2017,” the attorneys’ statement reads. “Such behavior, which has only increased in intensity since then, presents a clear and present danger to the health of our democracy.”

White supremacists find a new platform to spread hate: A federal courtroom in Charlottesville

Attorney James Kolenich, who represents defendant Nathan Damigo and the group Identity Evropa, said he had expected Moon to lower the punitive damages and was not surprised by the ruling. Kolenich declined to comment further.

The federal trial in Charlottesville lasted more than four weeks during the fall of 2021 and, at times, sounded like a far-right podcast.

The defendants weaponized the trial, using the n-word, expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler, calling for an all-White ethno-state and praising racist pseudoscience, espousing the kind of rhetoric seldom used in courtrooms.

They argued that the trove of evidence presented during the trial — including messages laced with slurs, calls for cracking skulls and memes of using cars to run over protesters — consisted of hyperbolic jokes and insisted they were exercising their First Amendment rights at the violent rally. Some defendants boasted about their courtroom performances — in which they attacked opponents, including their victims — on podcasts, radio shows and in live chats during the trial.

In Charlottesville trial, jurors learn to decode the secret slang of white supremacists

The lawsuit, which was backed by the nonprofit civil rights organization Integrity First for America, was underpinned by a Reconstruction-era federal statute designed to protect newly emancipated Black people from the Ku Klux Klan.

The 11 jurors in the Charlottesville case deliberated for three days before returning a verdict that the defendants had engaged in a conspiracy to commit harm under state law and that some of them engaged in race-based harassment or violence. But they could not agree on whether there was a racially motivated conspiracy to commit violence under that federal law.

The jury had awarded millions in punitive damages, including $500,000 for each individual defendant and $1 million for each white-supremacistorganization for engaging in the conspiracy. The jury also ordered five defendants to collectively pay two plaintiffs $500,000 in compensation for their injuries, as well as$1 million in punitive damages for engaging in racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence.

She feared she would die at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. In court, she faced the white supremacists who were there.

Two of the counts were specific to James A. Fields Jr., who is serving a life sentence for killing Heyer. He was ordered to pay over $1.5 million to compensate plaintiffs for the physical and emotional injuries they suffered because of his attack, as well as $12 million in punitive damages, for a total of $13.5 million for those two counts alone, in addition to the $500,000 from the conspiracy count.

Moon’s order means those millions in punitive damages are slashed to a total of $350,000.

During the trial, the plaintiffs testified about the ways the rally experience had altered their lives: causing the dissolution of a marriage, medical complications from a skull fracture, ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder and chilling nightmares.

Natalie Romero, who was struck by Fields’s car and suffered a skull fracture, told the jurors of the horrors of that weekend.

“I got spit on by people who hate me and who do not think I should be alive and that I threaten their existence,” Romero said.

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