Charlottesville, Virginia (CNN)The first witness in the civil lawsuit filed against organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally testified Friday, saying the attacks by angry White nationalists left her physically and emotionally scarred.
Natalie Romero said she and friends were standing at the Thomas Jefferson statue on the University of Virginia campus the night of August 11, 2017, when they were surrounded by hundreds of chanting White nationalists carrying tiki torches.Jury hears opening statements in trial over whether Charlottesville Unite the Right rally was intended to spur violenceThe crowd shouted racial slurs, spit at her and her friends and even threw torches at them, she said. “I tried to keep my head down. I felt like a mouse trapped,” Romero testified. The scene felt like “a Salem witch trial-type, like I was going to be burned at the stake,” she said.The next day the UVA student took part in a counterprotest in downtown Charlottesville when she was struck and flipped over a car barreling down the street — the same car which ran over and killed counterprotester Heather Heyer. Read MoreRomero was dragged to safety and propped up by strangers who tried to keep her awake. Feeling the end was near, Romero said she needed her cell phone. “I thought I was about to die. These are my last seconds of breath,” Romero said as her voice began to crack “I had to call my mom now.”Romero said she is still recovering from her injuries.Romero said she was in a wheelchair for two months before learning to walk with a cane. She suffered a fractured skull, and a broken tooth cut her lip. She added she still has intense headaches and sensitivity to light. Applause can trigger her, she said.Romero said in her nightmares she sees tiki torches and can still hear the White nationalists’ chant “You will not replace us.”Protest leaders cross-examine the first witnessJurors to decide whether Charlottesville Unite the Right rally organizers prepared for a violent showdown from the startDuring cross-examination Friday, rally organizer Jason Kessler’s attorney, Jim Kolenich, asked Romero if she recognized any of his defendants in the courtroom. Romero said she did not. Richard Spencer, the lead organizer for the August 11 torchlight rally, asked if Romero recognized him at either the tiki torch rally or the demonstrations the next day. Romero initially said no.”I would also remind you that the injury blurs a lot of things,” said Romero, who often forgot what the question was while she was answering in her own testimony. Christopher Cantwell questioned Romero for around 30 minutes, wanting to know if she had ever attended any Antifa rallies or noticed any of her fellow students carrying weapons, a point he had made in his opening argument. Romero said she was not a member of Antifa and she had not seen her fellow students and demonstrators carrying weapons. Dozens injured during protestsCharlottesville civil trial will explore where free speech becomes conspiracy to commit violenceThe United the Right rally ostensibly was called to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, but violence broke out when White nationalists, White supremacists and counterprotesters clashed. Dozens of people were injured and Heyer was killed when James Fields, who came to protest the statue’s removal, drove his car into the crowd. Fields is serving two concurrent life sentences.City residents and counterprotesters who were injured filed the lawsuit and are seeking compensatory and statutory damages for physical and emotional injuries they say they suffered. Among the defendants are 14 named individuals, including Fields, Kessler, Spencer and Christopher Cantwell, who became the face of the rally after being featured in a Vice documentary. The suit also names 10 White supremacist and nationalist organizations, including Moonbase Holdings LLC, the company that runs the Daily Stormer website; the League of the South, the Nationalist Socialist Movement and at least two chapters of the KKK.The defendants say they did not initiate the deadly violence that ensued; they argue they were exercising their First Amendment right to protest. They also say there was no conspiracy and the violence stemmed from law enforcement’s failure to keep the opposing groups separated. Second witness testifiesThe second prosecution witness Friday was Devon Willis, who described the scene at the Thomas Jefferson statue.”I remember that someone, from the direction of the mob, threw some mysterious fluid, and threw it at the direction of our feet,” Willis said. “Seemed like it might be some sort of lighter fluid and their strategy might be to burn us alive.”Willis said it got on his shoes and he tried to move farther up the statue to get away. “I thought I had made a very terrible mistake and that I might die that night,” Willis said.Willis will continue his testimony Monday.