November 23, 2021
On this date in 1876, William “Boss” Tweed, who had stolen between $25 and $200 million in his corrupt years at the head of New York City’s government and then fled to Spain to escape prison, was delivered up to authorities and sent back to jail.
One hundred and forty-five years later, the law is in the news again.
In Virginia today, a jury decided that the leaders of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 violated state law by conspiring before the event “to intimidate, harass or harm.” The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, five women and four men, including four people injured when James Fields rammed his car into protesters and killed 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer.
The plaintiffs sued five white nationalist organizations and 12 individual defendants, including prominent white supremacists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell, (known as the “Crying Nazi),” for engaging in a conspiracy to harm others. Over three weeks, the plaintiffs produced evidence that the defendants had talked of hitting protesters with cars at a party in Spencer’s apartment—known as the “Fash Loft” (short for fascist)—before the riot.
In their brief defense—their lawyers rested after a day and a half—the defendants tried to blame the deadly outcome of the riot on Fields alone and claimed their pre-event planning was just chatter amongst people who did not even know each other. Their talk of killing was just, as Spencer testified, “very juvenile and silly.” They said that they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights, that they acted in self defense, that the police should have kept the protesters apart, and that none of them knew Fields.
But the judge explained to the jury that a conspiracy did not require that the defendants committed violence themselves or even knew each other. It required only that they had the same goal and could foresee that violence would occur. Since it was a civil and not a criminal trial, they needed only to find “a preponderance of the evidence,” rather than guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in criminal trials.
The jury awarded the plaintiffs $26 million in damages. As Dahlia Lithwick noted in an article in Slate.com, this is no small thing, even though the defendants are unlikely to be able to pay. Fields is in prison for life for killing Heyer; Cantwell is serving a prison term for threatening to rape a man’s wife in front of their children unless the man gave Cantwell information he wanted about someone else. Spencer is also broke; his wife accused him of violent abuse before she left him. As Lithwick put it: “This isn’t about squeezing blood from a stone. It’s about widespread agreement that the stone sucks.”
Conspiracy is on other minds today as the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol issued subpoenas for three groups and associated individuals who were involved in the violence of that day. Proud Boy International, LLC, and its chair Henry “Enrique” Tarrio; the Oath Keepers and their president Elmer Stewart Rhodes; and 1st Amendment Praetorian, along with the organization chair Robert Patrick Lewis, all got subpoenas.
Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said: “The Select Committee is seeking information from individuals and organizations reportedly involved with planning the attack, with the violent mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6th, or with efforts to overturn the results of the election. We believe the individuals and organizations we subpoenaed today have relevant information about how violence erupted at the Capitol and the preparation leading up to this violent attack.”
Roger Stone, whom the committee subpoenaed yesterday, is already fundraising off the demand, and Alex Jones, also subpoenaed, today said that he will plead the Fifth—the constitutional amendment that protects an American citizen from being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”—because he “doesn’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Today Texas Senator Ted Cruz tried to turn the horrific killings in Waukesha, Wisconsin, into political points. On Sunday, a man fleeing another crime scene plowed his SUV into a Christmas parade, injuring at least 48 people and killing six, so far. With reference to the fact that suspect Darrell Brooks was out of custody on bail, Cruz tweeted: “Across the country, radical Leftists are releasing violent criminals from jail—with little or no bail—only to see them commit yet more violent crimes…. This horrific mass murder is the latest example. And it was fully preventable.”
Cruz’s tweet recalls the Willie Horton ad of 1988, when the George H. W. Bush campaign pinned on then–Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis responsibility for the weekend furlough of a murderer who raped a woman and assaulted a man while on furlough, despite the fact that the parole law had been passed by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor.
Today, as civil rights lawyer Scott Hechinger said: “There is no ‘bail reform’ in Wisconsin. There has been no significant change to bail laws in Wisconsin in a decade. Bail was set in this case. Yet still, prosecutors, police, & right wing politicians are convincing everyone ‘bail reform’ is to blame. And media amplifies the lie.”
In another piece of legal news, yesterday Attorney General Merrick Garland swore into office a new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the office that oversees Manhattan and all the many financial transactions therein. The new U.S. attorney is Damian Williams. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Williams was educated at Harvard for college, the University of Cambridge for a master’s degree, and Yale Law School for law school. He is the first Black American to run the SDNY.
Williams clerked for Garland when the attorney general was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Garland presided at Williams’s investiture yesterday. He used the opportunity to remind the attorneys and staff of the SDNY that the Department of Justice keeps our country safe from enemies both foreign and domestic and protects civil rights as it was chartered to do in 1879.
Above all, the Justice Department upholds the rule of law. It must treat everyone alike, Garland said. There must not be “one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans; one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; one rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one's race or ethnicity.”
In the two years that Tweed ran the city of New York unchallenged, he bought off opponents, extorted rivals, and pocketed millions from public contracts. He operated with impunity until members of his own party joined with reformers to replace his cronies and cut off Tweed’s access to funds. Voters turned against his gang, many of whom fled the country.
In November 1873, Tweed was found guilty of larceny and forgery, fined the equivalent of almost $300,000 in today’s money, and sentenced to a year in prison. Upon his release, the state sued him in civil court to recover $6 million he had embezzled. Unable to raise bail, Tweed escaped the country. Returned to the U.S on a warship in 1876, he died of pneumonia two years later in prison.