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Trial begins for man charged in 2017 Charlottesville torch rally at the University of Virginia

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Seven years after a white nationalist rally erupted in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a trial began Tuesday for one of about a dozen people charged with using flaming torches to intimidate counterprotesters.

Prosecutors at the trial of Jacob Joseph Dix showed the jury graphic videos of 300 to 400 white nationalists marching through the campus of the University of Virginia, carrying torches, shouting Nazi slogans and surrounding a much smaller group of anti-racist counterprotesters, an event that ended in chaos and fighting between the two groups.

But Dix’s lawyer, Peter Frazier, told the jury nothing Dix did the night of Aug. 11, 2017, was criminal, and that the chants he joined in, including “You will not replace us!” were free speech protected by the First Amendment.

“He didn’t shake his torch or try to hit somebody with it,” Frazier said.

“He is not guilty of any crimes,” he said.

The case will provide the first test of a 2002 Virginia law that makes it a felony to burn something to intimidate and cause fear of injury or death. Lawmakers passed the law after the state Supreme Court ruled that a cross-burning statute used to prosecute Ku Klux Klan members was unconstitutional.

Indictments unsealed last year showed 11 people had been charged with intimidation by fire, but prosecutors have not said whether additional defendants were also charged. So far, five people have pleaded guilty to the charge. Dix is the first to go on trial.

After the clash at the university, violence broke out the next day when a “Unite the Right” rally was planned. After police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and the crowd began to disperse, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist from Maumee, Ohio, intentionally rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens. Fields is serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes.

The two days of demonstrations were organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade.

Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, the special prosecutor in the case, told the jury that under the 2002 law, it doesn’t matter if Dix actually assaulted anyone during the march. What matters, she said, is that he was one of the people who carried a burning torch to intimidate the counter-protesters. “He chose to engage in behavior that gave people the fear of being harmed,” she said.

Diane D’Costa, a former UVA student who was called by prosecutors as their first witness, sobbed as she described how she felt when she heard “guttural” and “angry” chants of “You will not replace us!” as she moved into her room at UVA on Aug. 11, 2017. D’Costa said she looked out the peephole on her door and saw the flames from torches going by. She said she saw lots of people walking with tiki torches and saw a swastika tattoo on someone’s arm.

“As a Jewish person, that’s kind of terrifying,” she said.

During cross-examination, Frazier pointed to Dix seated next to him in the courtroom and asked if she recognized him. “I don’t know who he is,” she said, adding that she is unable to identify people who were in the crowd holding torches that night.

Dix, 29, of Clarksville, Ohio, told The Daily Progress newspaper that he has changed during the last seven years.

“I’m kind of on trial for a past life,” he told the newspaper during a court hearing in January.

The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday.

By DENISE LAVOIE
AP Legal Affairs Writer

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