At the first felony sentencing from last year’s violent Unite the Right rally, a judge on August 21 ordered a Maryland Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader to serve four years in prison for firing a gun at flamethrower-wielding Corey Long after an unlawful assembly had been declared.
Richard Wilson Preston, 53, had pleaded no contest May 8 to discharging a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school, which carries from two to 10 years in prison. The charge is made so infrequently that the court had no sentencing guidelines, and Preston’s attorney Elmer Woodard called it a “chocolate sauce charge” to enhance existing laws.
In a widely viewed ACLU video from August 12, 2017, Preston is seen pulling out a pistol and firing toward Long, who is standing beside what is now Market Street Park and aiming a makeshift flamethrower at rally-goers as they exited the park. Long was convicted of disorderly conduct June 8 and is appealing his conviction.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania noted the importance of the sentencing both for Preston and for the community, and asked for eight years. He stressed the case was not about Preston’s ideology, but about proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “This is about punishing the conduct and choices Mr. Preston made,” said Platania.
“He made a decision to utter a racial slur and fire a gun in the middle of this incredibly charged situation,” said the prosecutor, who also noted that Preston didn’t appear to show “much remorse” for his actions.
Klan whisperer Daryl Davis, a black musician who has spent 30 years befriending KKK members to try to understand why they hate people because of the color of their skin, testified he’d known Preston for five years, that he’d taken him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and had walked Preston’s fiancee down the aisle when they recently married. Davis previously testified that he’d put up half of Preston’s bond.
Woodard, who’s become the go-to attorney for several white supremacists charged that day, said Preston was a “little agitated” after having a newspaper box thrown at him and being threatened with a nail-studded stick.
“This whole thing was started by a man with a flamethrower,” said Woodard. “Mr. Preston kept them from being burned alive.”
He compared Preston’s actions to the “lost battalion” of World War I that suffered enormous losses and faced German flamethrowers: “It’s all about the willingness to stand up at the risk of being burned alive himself,” said the mutton-chopped attorney from Blairs.
“I don’t believe it’s proper to send a man to prison who didn’t hurt anyone,” added Woodard.
Before the judge sentenced him, Preston, in a choked voice, said, “I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
Moore said he had to base his sentence on what he’d seen on a day when downtown Charlottesville was like a “tinderbox.” Earlier in the day, Preston was shouting threats and showing his gun, said the judge. “This whole thing was driven by anger and belligerence, not fear.”
Moore didn’t see flames that close to the people leaving the park, he said. “I don’t find you saving their lives by firing.”
He added, “I don’t think he shot the gun out of necessity.”
Moore compared Preston to a “middle-school kid” and said his action was “one of the most foolish, dangerous things you would ever do,” before sentencing Preston to eight years, with four suspended, three years probation and 10 years of good behavior.
Before a deputy led Preston away, the imperial wizard mouthed, “I love you” to his sobbing bride in the courtroom.
Davis says there were a lot of “what-ifs” in the prosecution’s case: What if someone had walked in front of Preston’s gun or got hit by a ricochet or others started firing? “These are all valid points,” writes Davis in an email, “but there was no mention of, ‘What if the flame had indeed come in contact with the clothing of one of the people descending the steps and caught this person on fire? What if that caused even more people retaliate and an all out race war got started?’”
Davis would have liked to have seen Preston sentenced to time served, a fine, anger management courses and more racial educational outings with him. And ultimately, he says, “I blame the police. Had they been doing their job instead of standing around doing nothing, neither Corey nor Richard would have been inclined to engage their weapons.”
Also during court August 21, Woodard withdrew appeals for his clients Evan McLaren, executive director of Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, and JonPaul Struys, both of whom were convicted of failure to disperse when ordered out of what was then called Emancipation Park August 12. A third client, Identity Evropa founder Nathan Amigo, had previously withdrawn his appeal of the misdemeanor conviction.