Nazis' lawyers distance themselves from Chris Cantwell after he accuses Charlottesville victims of being 'Antifa'
Booking photo for Christopher Cantwell

Lawyers representing multiple white nationalists on Thursday rushed to distance their clients from a legal strategy being pursued by fellow white nationalist Christopher Cantwell.

During opening statements at the Charlottesville civil lawsuit trial, attorney James Kolenich, who represents white nationalist Jason Kessler and Identity Evropa founder Nathan Damigo, pursued a cautious strategy in his opening statement to the jury today by saying there simply is no evidence to connect the deadly 2017 car attack carried out by Ohio man James Fields with the other defendants' efforts to organize the rally.

"A conspiracy is an agreement," Kolenich said. "If you agree to yell at people, to annoy them, how is that an agreement to hit them with a car? If you spit at people, how is that an agreement to kill them?"

"There is a giant chasm in the plaintiffs' argument that anything you find that Kessler and Damigo agreed to that day that happened resulted in injuries for these defendants," he added.

In his opening statement on behalf of Fields, who in 2019 pleaded guilty to 29 counts in violation of the federal hate crimes law, attorney David Campbell said "there's no question" that his client "committed racially motivated violence."

But he suggested there is little to connect Fields to the other codefendants, who played a role in organizing and promoting the rally.

"I don't believe, despite a mountain of evidence that you will see any communication, any email, any agreement between Fields and any codefendant. I don't believe you will see any evidence that any of the codefendants knew James Fields before August 12th, 2017."

Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell, the two defendants who are representing themselves, suggested to the jury, as the plaintiffs' counsel predicted they would, that the trove of damaging communications from the Discord messaging platform was hyperbole and not evidence of a conspiracy.

Responding to a recording the plaintiffs played for the jury in which the normally polished Spencer raged that "those pieces of shit are going to be ruled by people like me…. we are going to destroy this f***ing town," Spencer dismissed it as "tough talk."

Cantwell described himself to the jury as a "professional entertainer," admitting to the jury that he tweeted at a Black man who challenged him on Twitter: "Shut up, n***er."

"The show is marketed as fiction, because it prioritizes entertainment over accuracy," Cantwell said, describing the podcast that earned him notoriety. "I'm an artist."

In an unhinged rant, Cantwell promised that his body-worn camera video that recorded a two-and-a-half-hour "leadership meeting" before the violent Aug. 11 torch march at the University of Virginia would absolve him of wrongdoing.

He went on to say: "You'll hear a couple racist jokes; we're kind of notorious for that…. You'll hear a brief mention of running people down in a vehicle and getting in a gun fight. But what you won't hear is a conspiracy."

Cantwell signaled to the jury that he will employ a starkly different strategy from his codefendants, who attempted to convey sympathy for the victims. In contrast, Cantwell criticized plaintiff the Rev. Seth Wispelwey, accusing him of blocking a roadway, and peppered his opening statement with derisive commentary about Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

In the runup to the trial, Cantwell has continued to promote a discredited conspiracy theory in an attempt to shift blame for the violence onto antifascist counter-protesters. In a handwritten brief filed three days before the start of the trial, he claimed that "the defendants were the victims, not the perpetrators, of the planned criminal conspiracy."

Kolenich, the lawyer for Kessler and Damigo, took pains to distinguish his clients from Cantwell in his opening statement.

"At no time are we going to claim the plaintiffs are Antifa," he said. "They're innocent people who were caught in between the alt-right and Antifa."

Spencer has also signaled that he will not join Cantwell in attempting to deflect blame onto "Antifa."

During jury selection earlier this week, when Judge Norman K. Moon invited counsel to offer evidence that the plaintiffs were linked to Antifa, Spencer said, "I will not argue that."

Josh Smith, who is representing Matthew Heimbach and David Matthew Parrott of Traditionalist Worker Party, previewed a somewhat different argument. Smith, who is ideologically aligned with his clients, revived a conspiracy theory generated by white supremacists in the immediate aftermath of Unite the Right that Fields' car attack was somehow engineered by law enforcement and city government.

Smith told the jury that the "alt-right and the far right were defamed" by publicity surrounding Fields' car attack, describing it as being "like a movie trope."

"Here, what we have is one of those situations where legally permitted rally-goers are not able to access the park and fighting breaks out," Smith said. "Police allow fighting to continue so they can step in and shut the rally down... This is why it's such a failure of local and city government. Why didn't you just keep the two different groups separate?"

Smith and other defense counsel have unsuccessfully attempted to cite an independent review of the violence that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 into evidence. The report authored by former US Attorney Timothy Heaphy was sharply critical of law enforcement handling of Unite the Right. But Judge Moon ruled the report is inadmissible as hearsay evidence.

William Edward ReBrook IV, representing former National Socialist Movement commander Jeff Schoep, told the jury he was "disgusted" by what he saw in the video presented earlier in the day by the plaintiffs depicting white nationalists marching on the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and Fields' car attack. He added that he wouldn't bother trying to humanize Schoep and the National Socialist Movement, whom he described "the most nefarious and notorious defendants other than James Fields."

"It would be a waste of time to humanize someone who holds repugnant views that most of us would give our dying breath to oppose."

ReBrook, who was out of court for two days with an unspecified illness, instead argued that the First Amendment is at stake.

Defense counsel Roberta Kaplan interjected a protest when ReBrook urged the jurors to "not allow attorneys from another state, from New York, to come down here and whittle away at the First Amendment."

Other members of the defense team have previously attempted to make Kaplan's Jewish identity an issue in the trial.

"The lawyers are not on trial," the judge admonished ReBrook.