CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Christopher Cantwell’s lawyer says his client’s comments disparaging blacks and Jews is just a comedic act of a “shock jock,” comparing him to the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason.
The claim was made during a four-hour bail hearing for Cantwell on Thursday night. Cantwell faces three felony charges stemming from an incident at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, in which he pepper-sprayed at least two people during a torchlight procession of hundreds of white supremacists who chanted Nazi slogans. The conflict was captured on camera and broadcast in a now-famous Vice News documentary.
Cantwell, a New Hampshire resident, hosts an online white-supremacist radio show called Radical Agenda and has become a well-known figure in the so-called “alt right.” He was invited to the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as a speaker, but didn’t after the event turned into a riot in which Heather Heyer was killed.
Cantwell was initially granted release pending trial on a $25,000 cash bond, but the county prosecutor appealed the ruling. A second bail hearing hours later asked whether Cantwell is a flight risk and whether he poses an immediate threat to anyone if released.
Cantwell's attorney is Elmer Woodard, who appeared in court wearing an early-1800s-style red waistcoat with gold buttons, bowtie, white muttonchop whiskers, black velcro shoes, and a a 1910s-style straw boater hat. Cantwell said Woodard was his fourth choice for legal counsel after three other lawyers declined to take his case. (Woodard previously attempted to defend a client accused of sexual assault by a 15-year-old girl by claiming that the man’s sleepwalking caused him to rape her.)
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci asked Judge Sheryl Higgins to allow him to introduce as evidence videos of Cantwell making violent statements, including some of his closing words in the Vice documentary: “I think [Heather Heyer’s death] was more than justified... I think that a lot more people are gonna die before we’re done here, frankly.”
Woodard objected, claiming that videos of his own client speaking were hearsay evidence.
“How is it hearsay when it’s your client’s own words?" Higgins replied, overruling Woodard’s objection.
Woodard then offered what he said was a quote by comedian Jackie Mason, saying that “take my wife, please"” was obviously not intended as a literal desire to kill or abandon a woman (the quote is actually from Henny Youngman). He compared Cantwell’s hate-filled monologues against Jews, blacks, Muslims, and other minorities on his podcasts to Mason.
Woodard said it was all a “shock jock” act.
But when Tracci asked Cantwell to describe what he does for a living, he answered: “I do a racist podcast.”
When Tracci quoted Cantwell’s statement praising the murder of Heyer, Woodard objected to the use of the word “murder.”
“I don’t know what happened to Heather Heyer!” Woodard said. “It could have been anything.” Then he launched into a long harangue in which he alluded to several conspiracy theories for her death on Aug. 12, when a white supremacist at the Charlottesville rally drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing her and injuring 19 others.
After Cantwell had already admitted that he had sprayed one of the protesters with pepper spray, Woodard said Cantwell “could have sprayed water, he could have sprayed anything, nobody has proven that it was pepper spray or mace or anything else.”
Cantwell has characterized his actions as having been in self-defense and blamed the police for not clearing protesters away, in an exclusive interview from jail with The Daily Beast.
“When I come down here for a permitted demonstration, championed by the ACLU, where the police are supposed to be clearing our enemies from our path, and then I find myself involved in a riot facing 20 years in prison, I got emotional, shockingly enough,” Cantwell told The Daily Beast.
Kristopher Cheney Goad, one of the two complainants against Cantwell, believes that it is important that Cantwell remain in custody.
“I believe he will show no restraint in calling for harassment of me both verbal and physical,” Goad told The Daily Beast.
Citing Cantwell’s lack of connection to the area, unclear ability to house himself in Virginia, and history of violent threats, the judge denied bail to the black-and-white jumpsuit-clad Cantwell, who hung his head with closed eyes as the decision was announced. He was led out of the court room with the sound of clanking chains between his legs and hands.
Cantwell is being held in solitary confinement for his own protection at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. His preliminary hearing ahead of trial is set for Nov. 9.