Lawyer for neo-Nazis had fought for the poor

Monday , July 02, 2018 - 7:05 AM

Ian Shapira

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Elmer Woodard was in no mood for concessions.

The mutton-chopped Virginia defense lawyer, a one-time Civil War reenactor who’s become the legal face of the white nationalist movement, was being asked by opposing attorneys in a federal lawsuit to do something seemingly minor: Call their client - Emily Gorcenski, a prominent counterprotester during last year’s violent “Unite the Right” rally - by her legal female name in court pleadings. Stop referring to the transgender activist by her original male name or with male pronouns.

Woodard - who represents Christopher Cantwell, known as the “Crying Nazi” in the lawsuit - ignored them. Though Gorcenski’s attorneys called the tactic a form of “intentional harassment” causing her “undue humiliation,” Woodard doubled-down.

“Despite his efforts to the contrary, Gorcenski is not in fact a female human being, having been born with and retaining the XY chromosome,” Woodard wrote in a February motion to the federal judge, Norman K. Moon. “Further, Gorcenski’s presenting himself as a female is untruthful, mendacious and deceptive. He is free to suffer the consequences of his decision, but has no right to force others to condone his lie.”

Woodard then tried to win over the judge with an attempt at humor.

“A United States District Court Judge is not a ‘transmagistrate’ . . . any more than counsel for Plaintiff is ‘transthin,‘ ‘transyoung,‘ or ‘trans-not-balding,‘ “ he wrote. “This motion should not be transdenied, but rather granted.”

It didn’t work. The motion was denied.

In this liberal university town, where the Aug. 12, 2017, rally left a counterprotester dead and 19 others wounded, Woodard has become a courthouse fixture, legal counsel to the boldfaced names of the white nationalist movement.

Besides Cantwell, he represents Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer and Matthew Heimbach, the co-founder of the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party, in lawsuits brought by Charlottesville residents and businesses; an Arkansas white nationalist convicted in the parking garage beating of a black counterprotester; and a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard awaiting sentencing for firing a gun within 1,000 feet of a school.

(Woodard does not, however, represent perhaps the most high-profile demonstrator from the Charlottesville rally: James A. Fields Jr., the neo-Nazi charged with first-degree murder, and most recently, federal hate crimes, for allegedly driving the car that ran into a crowd, killing counterprotester Heather Heyer.)

Woodard, 57, lives about two hours south of Charlottesville, in the tiny town of Blairs, Virginia, where he has his own law practice, according to public records. His email address, a nod to his past when he filed lawsuits against used-car dealerships, begins with “isuecrooks.”

When he has a case in Charlottesville, he is easy to spot. A driver drops him off in front of the courthouse. Dressed some days in a beige suit or light blue seersucker, Woodard always dons his signature straw boater hat, encircled with a navy and red ribbon. Most of the time, as he walks past the gantlet of local reporters, he’ll tip his hat and wave a courtly hello. But the press-averse attorney rarely stops for interviews, usually shuffling straight into the courthouse with his cane and black Velcro-strap shoes.

But on his way out of a hearing in May, Woodard agreed to field a few questions from a Post reporter. Asked numerous times whether he regarded himself as a white supremacist, Woodard repeatedly said: “I consider myself an attorney.”

Pressed to elaborate, Woodard said, “Just because I represent a pervert doesn’t mean I support perversion,” he said. “I represent murderers, drug dealers and perverts. Miraculously, I’m not one of them. If you know any, send them my way - only the rich ones.”

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In many of the Charlottesville cases, Woodard argues that his clients acted in self-defense or the defense of others, and that they had every right to exercise their freedom of speech.

In May, Woodard vigorously questioned DeAndre Harris, an African American counterprotester who had been brutally beaten during last year’s rally by a gang of white nationalists. Video footage of the attack clearly showed Woodard’s client, Jacob Scott Goodwin, dressed in a military tactical helmet and clasping a body-length shield, kicking Harris on the floor of a parking garage as Harris tried to flee.

Harris, a former special education instructional assistant, suffered a spinal injury, a broken arm and head lacerations that required eight staples.

But Woodard suggested to jurors that Harris had charged into the garage, looking for a fight - and that Goodwin was acting in self-defense.

“Are you running into the garage to fight or run away?” Woodard asked.

“I’m running away,” Harris said flatly.

Woodard told Harris that he seemed “perfectly fine” while attempting to flee the parking garage.

“I had just fallen down, bumped into someone and been Maced,” Harris replied. “Dude, I’m not perfectly fine.”

Frame-by-frame, Woodard forced a distraught Harris to watch the attack’s footage, constantly questioning his memory, even though the video made plain what had happened.

The jurors shook their heads. Others stared into their laps or tightened their lips.

“We all started to disbelieve [Woodard] very quickly,” said jury foreman William Abrahamson, 39, a Charlottesville architect. “This shielded, helmeted big guy was fearing for his life from this young man? It was absurd.”

Worse, jurors said, Goodwin offered no regrets, nor did he reveal anything about himself that might have persuaded jurors to recommend a light sentence.

“We had nothing positive about him to go on,” Abrahamson said.

Though prosecutors didn’t raise during the trial Goodwin’s public denial of the Holocaust or his alliance with an Arkansas white nationalist group, Woodard made race an issue during his closing arguments. “They want you to convict this man because he’s white, and DeAndre is a black man,” Woodard declared to the jury, which included two African Americans.

After finding him guilty, the jury recommended a 10-year sentence and took the highly unusual step of recommending a $20,000 fine. The judge will either impose or reduce the sentence and fine at an August hearing, where Woodard will represent Goodwin again.

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Woodard didn’t start out his career as an alt-right defender.

The son of a former Navy officer, Woodard studied German at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, then attended Campbell Law School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Armed with a law degree, Woodard went to work for the Virginia Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit organization that provides counsel to low-income people for civil cases.

“He enjoyed beating up bad guys. That’s how he described it,” said David Neumeyer, the non-profitgroup’s longtime executive director.

After Woodard left Legal Aid, he spent the early 2000s representing people fighting automotive dealers - accusing them of lying about car wrecks or mileage history - and also got involved with a local tea party group. He was particularly steamed by the then-proposed Affordable Care Act, requiring Americans to purchase health-care insurance. He wrote in 2009 on the now-defunct Danville Tea Party website that Obamacare was “unconstitutional, and support of it is treason against the people of the United States.”

By 2016, Woodard’s politics had grown more extreme.

On his Facebook page, which a local blogger took an image of before his account was deactivated or made private, Woodard posted news about a gang of neo-Nazis attacking a vegan cafe in the country of Georgia, and wrote: “Another worry - sausage wielding neo Nazis at vegan cafes in Russia. Now that’s funny!”

That same day, he posted a Bloomberg story about modern slavery, writing, “The only thing that matters is that blacks in America, NONE of whom were ever a slave, can claim that they are oppressed.” He added: “Ignore the 10% of black slaves that were owned by blacks in America. None of that matters. The only thing that matters are the feelings of blacks in America now.”

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How did Woodard wind up representing so many white nationalists facing criminal charges or lawsuits in the bitter aftermath of Charlottesville?

Kessler, the rally’s organizer, offered some insight in April when he appeared on the Political Cesspool podcast, billed as the South’s foremost populist conservative radio program, hosted by James Edwards.

“There’s a Virginia attorney named Elmer Woodard,” Kessler said. “This guy, Elmer, when all these media people were attacking me with these slanderous fake news attacks, this guy sent me an email and he’s like, ‘I know you were set up, you know, you guys walked into something.‘ And since then, I’ve been helping to confirm all of his suspicions about, you know, the antifa [antifascists] and government collusion.”

Kessler declined to talk to The Post. He just received initial approval to hold a sequel to last year’s rally across from the White House on Aug. 12.

On Sunday, in a series of posts on Gab, a social media network dominated by extremists, Kessler claimed he doesn’t “hate other ethnic groups.” He also said he’s withdrawn from the alt-right movement, that neo-Nazis are not welcome at this year’s rally, and that he supports “White Rights not ‘supremacy.‘ “

Woodard also has joined forces with James Kolenich, an unabashedly anti-Semitic attorney from Ohio, to defend several white nationalist leaders, including Kessler, from two lawsuits filed by Charlottesville residents and businesses seeking to stop them from holding similar events.

Kolenich told the Cincinnati Enquirer in February that he took the Virginia case to “oppose Jewish influence in society” and questioned whether the Holocaust happened, referring to the number of Jews killed as “the magic six million.”

Woodard even filed a criminal complaint on his own behalf against a well-known Charlottesville activist with Showing Up for Racial Justice. He claimed that Mark Heisey called him and used sexually explicit language to harass him. Heisey, who told The Post he’s never called Woodard, was charged with a misdemeanor for using obscene language with the intent to coerce, intimidate or harass another person.

Meanwhile on Gab, people have shared Woodard’s business address in Southside Virginia and implored readers to send him money for his roster of clients.

Perhaps Woodard’s most famous client is Cantwell, “the Crying Nazi.” Cantwell was photographed the night before the “Unite the Right” rally pepper-spraying an unknown counterprotester directly in the face - a person Cantwell claims was on the verge of starting a fight. But Cantwell was charged only after two other counterprotesters, Emily Gorcenski and Kristopher Goad, came forward, alleging that Cantwell’s spray injured them, too.

The criminal trial is set for August. But Woodard’s client sued Gorcenski and Goad in federal court for conspiracy to violate Cantwell’s civil rights and malicious prosecution. Then, Gorcenski and Goad countersued.

“The lawsuit is an attempt by him to prevent me from testifying in the criminal trial,” said Gorcenski, a data scientist.

In an interview, Cantwell praised Woodard.

“The guy’s a professional, okay? He doesn’t mind taking on controversial clients,” he said.

But Cantwell was adamant that Woodard does not share his philosophies.

“Elmer’s a white male. By a modern standard, that makes him a racist,” Cantwell said. “He’s not holding (expletive) racial animus. He’s not representing me because he wants to (expletive) re-form the Third Reich, okay?”

Gorcenski and her legal team, though, could not help but notice that Woodard filed an amended version of the lawsuit against her and Goad that numbered 88 pages - 88 being well-known neo-Nazi code for “Heil Hitler.”

Cantwell scoffed. Pure coincidence, he told the Post.

“He’s not (expletive) writing legal briefs to 88 pages to (expletive) file subliminal messages with a federal court,” Cantwell said. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard this month and I talk (expletive) about Communists for a living.”

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The day after Goodwin was convicted of malicious wounding in the parking garage beating, Billy Roper - “the uncensored voice of violent neo-Nazism,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center - entreated his listeners on Stormfront Radio to donate to Goodwin’s parents in Arkansas because their legal bills had reached $25,000.

Tamera and Scott Goodwin declined to talk with The Post about their son’s legal battle.

But in a June 6 interview with Stormfront Radio - hosted on the website of former Klan leader David Duke - Tamera Goodwin said she and her husband spoke with about 20 attorneys to persuade them to take their son’s case until they found Woodard.

During her appearance, one host pressed her to critique her son’s trial, but she said she wasn’t supposed to talk about it.

Still, she could not resist saying one thing.

“I was told that if my son would have had a stronger lawyer,” Tamera Goodwin said, “that [he] would be home with me right now.”

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