Jason Kessler didn’t waste any time addressing the media outside the courthouse March 20 when a judge abruptly dismissed a perjury charge against him during the trial.
“[Robert] Tracci is trying to do a political hit job,” he said to the cameras and microphones, adding that he and other attendees of August 12 rally he organized, including “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, have been targeted by the Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney. “This was an attempt to undermine my credibility so I can’t testify about the city of Charlottesville and their sabotage of that rally that got people hurt. And no one on any side should have gotten hurt.”
Kessler was accused of lying under oath at the local magistrate’s office following a January 2017 altercation with another man on the Downtown Mall. Defense attorney Mike Hallahan made a motion to strike the charge against his client immediately after resting his case, arguing that the prosecutor did not prove that the alleged crime took place in Albemarle County, and that the burden to establish venue is on the commonwealth.
Tracci, who could be heard asking his legal team if they had “any ideas” just minutes before the discharge, made a brief statement outside the courthouse that he was “obviously disappointed,” and said in an email that his office is examining potential steps to take.
“We count on our commonwealth’s attorney to do the best job he can and sometimes it’s not enough,” said local attorney Timothy Read, who was observing the trial. He said the perjury charge can’t be brought against Kessler again because of double jeopardy. “I’m very surprised that it happened here in a case with this much attention. …I think it’s an unfortunate outcome.”
Local legal expert Dave Heilberg says that while all trial attorneys make blunders, the rookie mistake won’t bode well for Tracci in the next election.
“Head prosecutors who are mostly office administrators before showing up to grandstand for their big cases sometimes make these errors,” he says. “Voters don’t forget these unforgivable mistakes.”
The perjury charge stemmed from a Downtown Mall scuffle when Kessler asked passersby to sign a petition to remove then Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy from office for offensive tweets he made before being elected. Community members saw it as a racial attack when the right-wing blogger put his hit out on the only African-American city councilor, and Kessler testified that many people would curse him over their shoulder when he asked for their signature on his document.
But when Jay Taylor approached and took the petition from Kessler, reading it for a few moments and calling Kessler a “fucking asshole,” the man on trial for perjury said he perceived a threat.
Video evidence submitted in court showed Kessler slugging Taylor upside the head, but Kessler’s sworn statement to the magistrate at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail was that Taylor had assaulted him first, by “violently shaking” his arm when he took the petition from Kessler and making “face to face” contact.
In the defense’s opening argument, Hallahan, who wore a long, pink tie, portrayed the result of Taylor’s alleged assaultive behavior by making a swing with his right arm and exclaiming, “BAM!”
Hallahan persisted that Kessler acted in self defense, and that his client’s written account of what happened, made under oath to a magistrate, was true. On the witness stand, Kessler admitted that “shaking,” wasn’t the best word to use and that the “face to face” contact he referred to consisted of Taylor standing about a foot away. In April, Kessler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of Taylor.
Tracci showed a Newsplex clip of Kessler being interviewed on the day of that guilty plea, in which he said, “Man to man, yell in a man’s face and expect to get punched in the face.”
During the perjury trial, Taylor testified he was walking on the mall with his dog and a cup of coffee when he saw Kessler, with whom he was acquainted, and asked to read the petition, even though he wasn’t a city voter.
Taylor said he realized that the petition wasn’t supposed to make anything better, that it was all about creating chaos, and that’s when he handed it back and called Kessler the expletive. After Taylor got clobbered, he said Kessler apologized, asked him not to call the cops and said he was just having a “bad day.”
“Yeah, I was having a bad day, clearly,” Kessler testified. “I try to be [a nice guy], [but] I don’t always succeed.”
It took nearly three hours to seat a jury of 10 men and three women out of a pool of 60 potential jurors, because more than a dozen told the judge that they were familiar with the organizer of the Unite the Right rally and Hallahan elected to individually interview them.
“I will admit that I have a preconceived idea about whether he committed perjury,” said one unnamed juror during her interview. “I believe he lied.”
She was dismissed. Another woman who was relieved of her duties said she knew Kessler as the guy who wanted to remove the city’s Confederate war memorials of General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
“She might be the only person in Albemarle County who thinks Mr. Kessler wants to take the statue down,” said Hallahan after she left the room, and there was a brief moment of unity, where the defendant’s supporters and opponents shared one thing: a nervous giggle.