Trial begins for man charged with fatally running down woman at Charlottesville rally
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Charlottesville, Virginia, is again bracing for journalists and protesters to converge on the city as jury selection begins Monday for the man accused of killing Heather Heyer at last year’s Unite the Right rally.
James Fields of Maumee, Ohio, is accused of plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters during the August 2017 white nationalist gathering, killing Heyer and injuring several other people, police say.
Heyer, 32, was a local paralegal and had attended the rally to speak out against white supremacy and racism. Her friends and families say she died for her beliefs.
Fields stands charged with first-degree murder in Heyer’s death. He also faces five counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident involving a death.
Separately, he is charged with hate crimes in a 30-count federal indictment. Prosecutors in that case allege Fields espoused white supremacist ideals and denounced minorities on social media before traveling to Virginia for the rally. Once there, the indictment says, he drove his car into a crowd with the intention of hurting people he targeted based on his bigoted views.
The 21-year-old has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. It’s unclear whether he has entered a plea to the state charges, though a trial would not likely be necessary if he had pleaded guilty.
His attorney, Denise Lunsford, did not return an email seeking comment. Fields is being held without bail in the Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Preparing for a circus
Judge Richard Moore has allotted 18 days for the trial. In anticipation of the heightened interest it will bring, he has established several rules and made numerous arrangements to accommodate the press and public. Included are media operations and staging areas, as well as a remote viewing area to handle the overflow crowd.
Moore has also outlined what he considers disruptive conduct and has banned purses, bags, signs and electronic devices from the courthouse.
Fields’ defense team has requested the trial be moved out of Charlottesville, saying the community is too connected to Heyer’s death and other violence from the Unite the Right rally to provide a pool of objective jurors.
Fields “has come to symbolize the community trauma associated with August 12,” the change of venue motion says. “Despite careful (jury selection), potential jurors’ resilience in their attempts to move forward may easily develop into prejudice against Fields, a prejudice that will be unlikely recognized by those affected and difficult, if not impossible, to ferret out.”
Prosecutors have countered that pretrial publicity is no reason to change the venue. They’ve discussed with the court possibly bringing in 300 or more potential jurors rather than the normal 40 to 60, according to a motion.
Heyer’s death followed months of violence
The Unite the Right rally brought groups of white nationalists and neo-Nazis to Charlottesville on August 11, 2017, but the racially charged violence in the city started months earlier.
White nationalist Richard Spencer first led torch-wielding demonstrators through the city in May 2017. The protesters were angry over a City Council decision to rechristen two parks named for Confederate generals and to remove a bronze statue of one of those generals, Robert E. Lee, from an eponymous downtown park.
Counterprotesters met them carrying banners that read “Black Lives Matter” and “F**k White Supremacy.” Police made three arrests. A police officer was injured when a flying object struck him in the head.
There was more violence in July when about 50 Ku Klux Klan members clashed with counterprotesters, prompting police to disperse tear gas and arrest 22 people.
After scuffles broke out August 11, the night before Heyer was killed, police declared a University of Virginia protest illegal and ordered the white nationalists and counterprotesters to disperse.
The morning of the August 12 rally, more clashes erupted, forcing police to clear Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park (it’s now known as Market Street Park). The day was marred by pepper spray, screaming and fistfights, and before the rally could begin, police decided the protest constituted an unlawful assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared an emergency.
Fights continued to break out around the city. That afternoon, Fields allegedly ran his car into the crowd.
Surveillance video showed a Dodge Challenger stopping about a block and a half away from the protesters, reversing, then driving into the crowd before speeding away in reverse.
Fields could not be seen driving the car, but aerial footage from Virginia State Police showed him getting out of the car and onto the ground after the collision.
‘He had an African-American friend’
As a youngster in Union, Kentucky, Fields had “outlandish, very radical beliefs,” his former social studies teacher, Derek Weimer, said.
“It was quite clear he had some really extreme views and maybe a little bit of anger behind them,” Weimer said. “He really bought into this white supremacist thing. He was very big into Nazism. He really had a fondness for Adolf Hitler.”
A classmate who took German classes with Fields told CNN affiliate WCPO that Fields “would proclaim himself as a Nazi. … It was not a secret.”
After graduation, Fields joined the Army in August 2015 but left active duty after failing to meet training standards, Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson said.
“As a result he was never awarded a military occupational skill, nor was he assigned to a unit outside of basic training,” she said.
Fields was working for a security company at the time of his arrest. He’s since been fired, the company said.
His mother, Samantha Bloom, told The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, that she thought her son had traveled to Virginia for a rally related to President Donald Trump. She was surprised her son attended an event with white supremacists, she said.
“He had an African-American friend,” she told The Blade.
Fields apologized and cried after his arrest
During an earlier hearing in Fields’ case, Charlottesville Detective Steven Young testified he was patrolling Emancipation Park when he got a call about the alleged hit-and-run that killed Heyer.
By the time Young arrived on the scene, Fields was already on the ground in handcuffs, he said. There was blood and flesh on the front of the Challenger, the front fender had been torn off and the windshield was cracked, he said.
Under cross-examination by Lunsford, Fields’ attorney, the detective acknowledged that, after his arrest, Fields said, “I’m sorry” several times and asked if people were OK.
Fields appeared shocked and began sobbing upon learning Heyer had been killed, Young testified. Fields told investigators he went to Charlottesville by himself and wanted to hear a speaker at the rally, the detective said.
Exclusive photographs obtained by CNN appear to show Fields marching alongside neo-Nazis and other white supremacists at the rally.