Trial for man charged in 2017 Charlottesville torch rally at University of Virginia set to begin

Years after a white nationalist rally erupted in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a trial is set to begin Tuesday for one of the people charged with using flaming torches to intimidate counterprotesters.

The trial of Jacob Joseph Dix, 29, of Clarksville, Ohio, would be the first test of a 2002 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.

On the night of Aug. 11, 2017, several hundred white nationalists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia, many carrying torches and some chanting, "Jews Will Not Replace Us." Two days of demonstrations were organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade.

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.

Dix 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.

Dix's attorney, Peter Frazier, has argued in court documents that the white nationalists were expressing free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case after a judge granted a request from Dix's attorney to remove Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James Hingeley’s office from the case because of a conflict of interest involving an assistant commonwealth's attorney.

The trial in Albemarle Circuit Court is expected to last about a week.

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