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Jury awards $26M in damages for Unite the Right violence

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A jury ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages Tuesday over the violence that erupted during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

After a nearly monthlong civil trial, the jury in U.S. District Court deadlocked on two key claims but found the white nationalists liable on four other claims in the lawsuit filed by nine people who suffered physical or emotional injuries during the two days of demonstrations.

Attorney Roberta Kaplan said the plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to refile the suit so a new jury can decide the two deadlocked claims. She called the amount of damages awarded from the other counts “eye opening.”

“That sends a loud message,” Kaplan said.

The verdict, though mixed, is a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organizations accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews and others in a meticulously planned conspiracy.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to appeal, saying the “entire theory of that verdict is fundamentally flawed.”

He said plaintiffs’ attorneys made it clear before the trial that they wanted to use the case to bankrupt him and other defendants.

“It was activism by means of lawsuits, and that is absolutely outrageous,” he said. “I’m doing fine right now because I had kind of accepted in my heart the worst that could happen. I had hope, of course, but I’m not terribly surprised or crestfallen.”

Jurors were unable to reach unanimous verdicts on two pivotal claims based on a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan Act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

Under those claims, the plaintiffs asked the jury to find that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and that they knew about the conspiracy but failed to stop it from being carried out. Jurors could not agree on those claims.

The jury did find the defendants liable under a Virginia state law conspiracy claim and awarded $11 million in damages to the plaintiffs under that claim. Jurors also found five of the main organizers of the rally liable under a claim that alleged they subjected two of the plaintiffs to intimidation, harassment or violence that was motivated by racial, religious or ethnic animosity. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $1.5 million in damages on that claim.

The final two claims were made against James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed Hitler admirer who intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The jury found Fields, who is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes, liable on an assault or battery claim and awarded six plaintiffs just under $6.8 million in damages. The jury awarded the same plaintiffs nearly $6.7 million on a claim that Fields intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said the verdict “sends a very clear message that hate speech put into action has consequences.”

“The defendants were convicted with their own words that showed months of planning went into the rally. This was not a spontaneous event,” said Bro, who was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. During a march on the University of Virginia campus, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” surrounded counterprotesters and threw tiki torches at them.

Then-President Donald Trump touched off a political firestorm when he failed to immediately denounce the white nationalists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.

The lawsuit funded by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization formed in response to the violence in Charlottesville, accused some of the country’s most well-known white nationalists of plotting the violence, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the “crying Nazi” for posting a tearful video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counterdemonstrators.

Joshua Smith, an attorney for defendants Matthew Heimbach, Matthew Parrott and the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party, said he will ask the court to reduce the punitive damages awards against his clients under U.S. Supreme Court precedent that places limitations on how much larger punitive damages can be than compensatory damages. Smith described the verdict as a “big win” for his clients due to the relatively modest amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury.

The trial featured emotional testimony from people struck by Fields’ car or who witnessed the attacks as well as plaintiffs who were beaten or subjected to racist taunts.

Melissa Blair, who was pushed out of the way as Fields’ car slammed into the crowd, described the horror of seeing her fiancé bleeding on the sidewalk and later learning that her friend Heyer had been killed.

“I was confused. I was scared. I was worried about all the people that were there. It was a complete terror scene. It was blood everywhere. I was terrified,” said Blair, who became tearful during her testimony.

During their testimony, some of the defendants used racial epithets and defiantly expressed their support for white supremacy. They also blamed one another and the anti-fascist political movement known as antifa for the violence that erupted that weekend.

In closing arguments to the jury, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from Fields and said the plaintiffs had not proved that they conspired to commit violence at the rally.

Before the trial, Judge Norman Moon issued default judgments against another seven defendants who refused to respond to the lawsuit. The court will decide damages against those defendants.

Crestwood Elementary, becomes 8th Chesterfield County Title I School to receive national distinction

Crestwood Elementary, a Title I school in Chesterfield County, was named a National ESEA Distinguished School during a surprise outdoor assembly Tuesday afternoon.

Upon hearing the news Tuesday afternoon, all Crestwood students began to dance to the “Turkey Tango” in celebration.

Only two schools per state receive the annual distinction from the National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators.

To qualify for the award, schools must meet three pieces of criteria for two or more consecutive years: meet full state accreditation, have a poverty rate of at least 35% and demonstrate exceptional academic achievement, according to a Chesterfield Schools news release.

According to the Virginia Department of Education’s School Quality Profiles, 51.1% of Crestwood students were economically disadvantaged last fall.

Schools are then recognized in one of three categories: exceptional student performance for two consecutive years, closing the achievement gap between student groups and excellence in serving special populations of students.

Crestwood was recognized in the third category for the school’s work with its English Language Learning students.

“Crestwood Elementary exemplifies what we mean when we say ‘all means all.’ Public education is for all students, and teachers throughout our school system work hard to make sure every student succeeds,” Chesterfield Schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty said in a statement.

ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” was created at the time to close educational gaps between children from low-income households, who attended urban or rural schools, and children from middle-class households who attended suburban schools.

The concept of Title I, a federal program that provides funding to schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students, was established under the act.

“I’m so proud that you’re finally getting the acknowledgment that you deserve,” School Board member Kathryn Haines said during Tuesday’s assembly. “Since 2012, I know that the school has been working to redesign approaches to planning staff development and instruction as part of the detailed state improvement plans.

“So now you are a fully accredited Title I school that surpasses state benchmark and all subgroups, that’s like getting an A on your report card in every single subject,” Haines added.

Crestwood is the eighth Chesterfield school to be named a National ESEA Distinguished School. Previous elementary schools that won from 2002 and 2018 are: Bensley, Chalkley, Harrowgate, Beulah, Bellwood, Elizabeth Scott and Ettrick.

“Teaching and learning are not easy, but they are vital to our community, and we celebrate Crestwood’s commitment and success,” Daugherty said.

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Richmond's former interim police chief, who led RPD for 11 days during protests, sues city over his firing

William “Jody” Blackwell, who temporarily took the helm of the Richmond Police Department at the height of civil unrest in the summer of 2020, is suing the city for wrongful termination and breach of contract.

Blackwell was installed as interim police chief on June 16, 2020 and served in that capacity for only 11 days, during which time “he refused an order of Mayor [Levar] Stoney that Blackwell have his officers stand guard over the emergency removal of Richmond’s city-owned Confederate monuments,” according to the lawsuit he filed earlier this year, alleging that is why he was then fired from the department in February 2021.

A spokesman for Stoney’s office declined to comment saying “the city does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.” But in response to Blackwell’s complaint, the city’s attorneys said the city cannot be sued under sovereign immunity.

Blackwell is asking for $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, according to the civil suit. It also states that he “is entitled to reinstatement to his former position, back pay, front pay and his full pension benefit without forfeiture.”

On Monday, the case was continued generally, which means a new hearing date has not be set.

In mid-June 2020, Blackwell replaced former Police Chief William Smith, whom Stoney had asked to resign the same day he elevated Blackwell to the post after what appeared to be escalating clashes between protesters and police officers in the days prior to the announcement. Blackwell had initially interviewed for the chief’s position before Smith had been selected, the lawsuit said. Once Smith took office, he promoted Blackwell to major, and Blackwell served as Smith’s chief of staff.

The suit alleges that on June 24, 2020, “Stoney requested that RPD officers stand watch while private contractors removed various monuments. Blackwell told Mayor Stoney that he refused to allow RPD officers to stand watch as such action would violate Virginia law and could expose his officers to criminal liability.”

The law Blackwell cited made it illegal to “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials for any war or conflict.” That law had been amended by the General Assembly, but didn’t take effect until July 1, and also required several steps that authorities had to take before removing any war monument.

Two days later, Stoney again met with Blackwell, as well as the police department’s general counsel, according to Blackwell’s suit. Both men told Stoney “that it would be illegal to have the RPD involved in removal of the monuments,” the suit read.

Stoney then asked the department’s attorney to leave the meeting and told Blackwell it would best if he stepped down, the document read. Stoney then announced that Gerald Smith would take over effective July 1, 2020. The first of the city’s Confederate iconography, Stonewall Jackson atop a horse, came down that day.

Afterward, Blackwell returned to a position as a major within Gerald Smith’s command staff. It was Smith, not Stoney who fired Blackwell, more than seven months later.

“On Feb. 2, 2021, however, Chief Smith informed Blackwell that his ‘services were no longer needed’ as the chief had a different ‘vision’ for the department,” the suit read. It goes on to say that Blackwell believes he was fired “in retaliation for refusing an illegal command.”

His suit alleges that when Stoney asked Blackwell to lead the department on June 16, Blackwell expressed concerns about the security of the position and his pension. That same day a letter was signed by the city’s then-acting chief administrative officer guaranteeing Blackwell a salary of $155,000 as interim chief, and confirming that if he were removed as interim chief, he’d return to his former position as major. The suit claims the latter stipulation was breached when he was fired by Gerald Smith on Feb. 2.

“In addition to losing pay and benefits as a result of being wrongfully terminated, Blackwell also will suffer forfeiture of tens of thousands of dollars of future pension benefits,” the suit said. “Blackwell was only 18 months from his pension being fully vested.”

The city is being represented by private attorneys Jimmy Robinson and Bret Daniel, who asked a Richmond Circuit Court judge to dismiss the claims saying the June 16 letter “is not an enforceable contract” and “it contains no binding obligation to maintain Blackwell’s employment with the RPD in perpetuity,” the court documents show.

After his dismissal in Richmond, Blackwell, who lives in Chesterfield County, joined Chesterfield’s police department in March. According to the department’s spokeswoman, he resigned in October.

YMCA's downtown Richmond complex to be sold to developers as part of planned residential development; renovation of fitness center planned

The YMCA building in downtown Richmond may soon be getting a major facelift as part of a potential residential development.

Plans call for the YMCA of Greater Richmond to sell its four-story building at West Franklin and Foushee streets, its attached two-story fitness center and surrounding parking lots to George P. Emerson Jr., a residential and commercial real estate developer and the principal in many historical redevelopment projects throughout the Richmond region.

Emerson and his development partner Phil Roper would renovate the nearly 80-year-old YMCA building and turn the upper floors — once used as dormitory rooms — into apartments. The developers also are planning to construct an apartment building or buildings in the parking lots along West Grace Street, mostly behind the main YMCA building.

The YMCA announced Tuesday that the nonprofit had entered into an agreement to sell Emerson its property — the 2 W. Franklin St. building, the fitness center and contiguous parking lots along West Grace Street and one lot across West Franklin Street. Terms of the sale were not disclosed. Both parties are conducting due diligence though the end of the year.

If the sale goes through as expected early next year, work would start during the second quarter.

The centerpiece of the planned residential development project is renovating the Downtown YMCA, which opened in 1942.

“We’re just in the planning phases of it,” Emerson said. “We like the idea of doing an historic rehab and we like the location of where the building is with a wide spectrum of people there. “

The YMCA’s offices on the second, third and fourth floors of the building would be relocated. The organization has more than 80 people working in those offices.

The nonprofit is in the process of finding new office space. “We’re getting close. We’ve got some options. But it would be premature to discuss because we have not signed the lease anywhere yet,” said Barry Saunders, the local YMCA’s senior vice president of strategy, membership and programs.

The first floor of the main building along with the attached fitness center would remain open, even during the renovation, he said.

The YMCA decided to sell its properties for a couple of reasons, Saunders said.

“One is it’s obviously more property than we need,” he said. “So when we think about how do we manage our resources well and what are we maintaining and where do we want those dollars to go to drive the most impact to the YMCA throughout the community. There’s a big difference in investing in a wellness center, investing in child care facilities and investing in parking lots. So that’s kind of a super practical version of it.”

The other reason is that it enables the YMCA’s building to undergo a major renovation. The space was last renovated in late 1989 when the fitness center was added on.

“This coming together is sort of just one of those nice marriages. They’re strong believers in the mission of the YMCA and they’re passionate about it. We had some real estate that quite frankly wasn’t bringing a lot of value to the overall mission of what we’re about. And together it made sense for both parties,” Saunders said.

Over the years, Emerson and his business partners developed or have been involved in many projects including River’s Bend, Meadowville Landing, Chester Village Green and The Highlands. The apartment projects include Moore’s Lake Apartments, American Tobacco Center, Cedar Broad Apartments, Shockoe Commons and Shockoe Center.

The YMCA owns several but not all of the parcels in the block bounded by West Franklin, West Grace, North Adams and North Foushee streets. Many of the parcels are parking lots behind the building along Grace Street. It also owns the parking lot across Franklin Street from the YMCA’s main entrance.

The main complex of buildings at 2 W. Franklin St., including the fitness center, is assessed for $6.85 million, according to the city’s online real estate records.

The YMCA has been discussing with Emerson the possibility of him buying the property for three years, but Saunders said the COVID pandemic put those talks temporarily on the back burner.

“Then on top of that, just finding the right terms of the partnership and what it would look like and how it would benefit both parties,” he said.