CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A federal judge is considering moving the trial in a civil lawsuit filed against organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia because of potential logistical and safety issues.
The Daily Progress reports that U.S. District Judge Norman Moon floated the idea of moving the trial during a telephone hearing in the case Friday.
Violent street clashes broke out in Charlottesville on Aug 12, 2017, before a man fascinated with Adolf Hitler plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman. Lawyers for victims of the violence sued several far-right extremist groups and individuals who participated in the event, which was organized in part to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The case has moved slowly over the past four years, inhibited partly by the sheer number of defendants and a lack of cooperation from some of them, and then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial is currently scheduled to begin on Oct. 25.
Moon said he has several concerns about holding the trial in Charlottesville.
"The number of bodies and the lawyers in this case raises a significant logistical concern of how to make sure both sides are represented at trial, given space limitations even in a big courtroom such as in Charlottesville," Moon said.
"Space limitations would be a concern regardless, but I expect we could continue to see risks from COVID-19 in October."
Moon suggested potentially moving the trial to the federal courthouse in either Roanoke or Lynchburg.
Roberta Kaplan, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, said her team wants to keep the trial in Charlottesville and is willing to limit the number of plaintiffs and attorneys in the courtroom to one or two at a time. She also said the plaintiffs are open to viewing the trial proceedings via video from other rooms in the courthouse.
Several of the defendants said they had concerns about their safety if the trial is kept in Charlottesville.
Defendant Richard Spencer said he is in favor of moving the trial to Lynchburg.
"I have been attacked by activists, and so that is a concern to me," he said. "I think your instincts are sound, and I think we should be trying to lower the temperature and remove any kind of public spectacle aspect to this and just stick to the facts."
Defendant Matthew Heimbach, formerly of the Traditionalist Worker Party, echoed Spencer's security concerns and also said that a monthlong trial would hurt his family, as he would be unable to work.
Forcing rally participants to return to the area also could draw in people the court has no control over, Moon said. Kaplan countered by pointing out that the trial location will never be secret and that people would likely travel regardless of where it is held.
Moon urged the two sides to confer before the next hearing and to file any submissions about the venue within the next seven days. It is unclear when he will decide.