Turning to his wife and family, Maryland Ku Klux Klan leader Richard Wilson Preston touched his heart and mouthed “I love you.”
It was a short goodbye for what will be a relatively long absence.
A judge in Charlottesville, Virginia, sentenced the 53-year-old Preston on Tuesday to four years in prison with another four years suspended for firing a gun into a crowd during the “Unite the Right” rally of Aug. 12, 2017. The prison sentence handed down by Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore marked the first felony sentence stemming from the deadly rally, which saw the downtown area of the city of 48,000 overrun by neo-Nazis, racists, white supremacists and others on that deadly weekend.
Preston pleaded no contest to firing a shot during the rally that did not hit anyone.
“It was just pure belligerence,” Moore said.
Initial claim of self-defense
Preston, a Baltimore, Maryland, resident, is the Imperial Wizard of the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, although that affiliation went unmentioned during the nearly 40-minute hearing. In a video filmed by the ACLU of Virginia, Preston is seen firing a pistol at counter-protesters.
In the video, Preston is seen drawing his pistol and shouting, “Hey, nigger,” then walking toward the crowd, lowering his gun toward the ground and firing before walking away. There were no reports of injuries from the gunshot.
At the time, Preston claimed he was trying to shield others from a homemade flamethrower — an aerosol can sprayed onto a lighter — wielded by 24-year-old Corey Long, who will stand trial in January. Preston’s attorney, Elmer Woodard, made the same claim during the sentencing hearing Tuesday. Woodard also noted that Preston’s bullet didn’t strike anyone.
“Somebody had to put a stop to that flamethrower,” Woodard said.
Charlottesville’s top prosecutor, Joseph D. Platania, said Preston’s no-contest plea was a form of taking responsibility, but to date the Klansman hasn’t shown any real remorse.
“This is about Preston’s conduct and the choice Mr. Preston made,” Platania said.
A good citizen?
Appearing in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, Preston spent much of the hearing with his shoulders slumped forward as he listened to the proceedings. Woodard described his client as a good citizen who merely tried to defend others during “Unite the Right,” while Platania talked about how dangerous his conduct was that day.
Woodard held forth for three minutes describing a World War I hero who helped fight off Germans attacking his stranded soldiers with flamethrowers. Woodard noted that those soldiers were hailed as heroes for beating back the attackers.
“The rules go out the window when flamethrowers are involved,” Woodard said.
The hearing took an odd twist when Daryl Davis of Baltimore, a black man with a bushy mustache who works to get Klansmen to leave the organization, took the witness stand at the courthouse, which displays the quote “Justice is the fundamental law of society” from Thomas Jefferson and sits across the street from a park featuring Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Davis told Moore he’s known Preston for about five years. The two men were featured on CNN visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. During that trip, Preston wore a bandana featuring a Confederate flag and talked about his desire to be buried in his Klan robes upon his death.
During the hearing, Davis, who posted bond for Preston, said the two men have shared meals at each other’s homes and described how he gave away Preston’s bride during the Klansman’s wedding. The trip to the museum was good for both men, said Davis, who has four Ku Klux Klan robes from former Klansmen he’s convinced to leave the group.
“He learned a lot,” Davis said. “I learned a lot.”
Preston didn’t appear to react to the testimony from Davis. But a few moments later, he stood, and in a voice cracking slightly, apologized for firing the shot, while also appearing to try to defend his actions.
“I am sorry,” Preston said. “I only had second to figure it out. … I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
‘You were mad’
Judge Moore didn’t seem impressed with Preston’s remorse. Instead, Moore described the day of the rally as a “powder keg” in downtown, with armed people roaming around, and mentioned video of Preston waving his gun and yelling earlier in the day. A 32-year-old paralegal, Heather Heyer, would die that day after being hit by a car that plowed into a crowd. A neo-Nazi sympathizer, 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged with first-degree murder and federal hate crimes stemming from the incident.
Moore didn’t excuse Long’s behavior, noting the flamethrower was dangerous.
“What he did was aggravating. … It was stupid,” Moore said.
But Preston’s behavior throughout the day — including leaving the rally and returning to his car to retrieve the pistol used in the shooting — undercuts any claim of defending someone, Moore said. Firing the shot, even though it only hit dirt, could have precipitated something much worse, the judge told the court.
“You’re just fortunate this didn’t turn into a gun battle,” Moore said. “I don’t think you were thinking at all.”
Woodard said Preston was merely trying to defend others and their right to gather in a public space and protest. It’s the same argument that “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler, who wasn’t at the court hearing, has made for more than a year.
Moore wasn’t having it, saying that historically, people defending their civil rights do so peacefully — and not armed.
“You come and take your stand for a right,” Moore said. “You don’t defend yourself if you stand for a right.”
Moore then ordered Preston to prison. Preston turned and, without being handcuffed, walked through a back door of the courtroom to await assignment to a Virginia state prison and begin his sentence.