Virginia state laws only contain hate-crime enhancements for lesser charges, which means that in pursuing the more serious malicious wounding charge, prosecutors had to avoid discussing Goodwin and Ramos’s ideological leanings—that is, their motive for showing up at a racist rally in the first place. “We charged the most serious offense that we could under state law with the highest maximum penalty,” Joseph Platania, the Commonwealth’s attorney for the city of Charlottesville, told me after Goodwin was convicted. “We are appreciative of the careful attention the jury paid to the facts and are satisfied with the result.”
The prosecution didn’t raise Goodwin’s ideology at trial, but that didn’t stop Goodwin’s attorney, Elmer Woodard, from raising the issue to garner sympathy from the jury. “They want you to convict this man because he’s white, and DeAndre is a black man,” Woodard told the jury in his closing arguments. That appeal echoes what Goodwin has told his comrades on the outside—in one letter from Goodwin featured in an NBC documentary on Goodwin’s family, he declares, “my crime is being unapologetically white.” (Reached by phone, Woodard said he wouldn’t comment on the trial).
In a bygone Virginia, that appeal might have worked. In July 1898, John Henry James was dragged from a train station in Charlottesville by a mob and hung from a tree while he professed his innocence, after being accused of assaulting a white woman. Onlookers “emptied their revolvers into his body” and left it there for two hours, as “hundreds” of passersby gathered souvenirs from his corpse, according to one black Richmond paper. A local editor for a different newspaper noted that while he “feared mobs with the most upright intentions,” in the case of James, “the provocation was very great.” The local sheriff briefly threatened to charge the mob responsible for murdering James, which the editor described as the sheriff being “temporarily unbalanced” by the incident. Threatening to charge white people for mob violence against a black man was, in his view, a kind of temporary insanity.
Police killings of black men still exist in a kind of legal nether-region, where almost no set of circumstances can lead to prosecution or conviction. All over America, but particularly in the South, and in Virginia, that exception once applied not just to police, but to any white man who sought to bloody his hands against his black neighbors. The men who outnumbered and brutally attacked Harris, and have portrayed their celebratory beating of a black man at a white-supremacist rally as a kind of heroism, are seeking a return to that era, to that peculiar form of “justice.” For them, that was when America was truly great.