CHARLOTTESVILLE — There is no doubt that James A. Fields Jr. drove his two-door muscle car into a crowd of people in this city’s downtown mall 15 months ago. And there is no doubt that one person was killed and three dozen others injured in that bloody collision.
What a jury of 12 must now consider as they decide whether to convict Fields of first-degree murder is his state of mind while he was behind the wheel that summer afternoon. Did he race his car into the crowd to kill people he perceived as his political and ideological enemies? Or did he feel threatened and act to defend himself?
Whether Fields acted out of fear or malice is the central question for jurors in this case, and how they answer it will determine whether he could face life in prison or a lesser sentence.
Fields, 21, is on trial in the violent crash that killed Heather Heyer, 32, and haunts this quiet college town. Her death on Aug. 12, 2017 — and the violence that preceded it — has definitively tied Charlottesville to the emergence of white supremacists, who came out of the shadows in the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. That day, attendees of the “Unite the Right” rally clashed violently with counterprotesters who opposed their presence in this city.
Prosecutors have portrayed Fields, who appeared in court Thursday in a dark-blue sweater, as an enraged man who has adopted the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. Shortly before 2 p.m. that day, he saw counterprotesters, some with Black Lives Matter insignia, marching on Fourth Street in this city’s downtown pedestrian mall, and found an opportunity to act on his rage, Senior-Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony said in her closing argument Thursday.
As counterprotesters were celebrating, hugging and chanting, someone was in the distance, “idling, watching,” and “that person means them harm,” Antony told jurors.
Antony said there is no evidence proving that Fields had been threatened before he crashed into the crowd. Two witnesses, she said, testified that before Fields raced his Dodge Challenger across the mall and into the counterprotesters, he backed up slowly and deliberately as if to gain momentum — and that nobody was around or behind his car attacking him in any way.
“No one at all,” Antony reiterated.
She recounted the text exchange Fields had with his mother before he drove more than 500 miles from his apartment in Maumee, Ohio, to Charlottesville. “Be careful,” his mother told him. He replied to her with a meme of Hitler, and a message saying, “We’re not the one who need to be careful.”
“That’s what fills his mind on Fourth Street,” Antony said, referring to Hitler’s image.
She also recounted the meme that Fields shared on Instagram three months before the crash. The meme shows a car plowing into a crowd of protesters.
“We are not saying that Mr. Fields has been planning this for three months,” Antony told the jurors. But, she said, Fields saw an opportunity on Fourth Street to “make his Instagram post a reality.”
In her closing argument, defense attorney Denise Lunsford asked jurors to take into consideration Fields’s behavior before and after the crash. Rallygoers who met him earlier that afternoon testified that he seemed calm and normal. And after the crash, as he was being arrested, Fields was apologetic, according to body-camera footage played in court this week.
“He wasn’t angry,” Lunsford said. “He was scared.”
Body-camera videos show Fields saying “sorry” to a detective after he was arrested. “I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me,” he can be heard saying. At the police station, after Fields was told that several people were severely injured, he sobbed uncontrollably.
Lunsford also asked jurors to set aside how they feel about Fields’s political views — whether they agree with them or find them repulsive — as they decide whether to convict.
“You can’t do that based on the side that he’s on. You can’t do that based on the fact that he holds extreme right-wing views,” she said.
Lunsford also played down the significance of the Hitler meme Fields attached in the text to his mother, saying prosecutors have made a lot of assumptions “based on one meme and one text attached to it.” She made the same argument about the Instagram meme Fields shared months before the crash.
“One meme off Instagram . . . from a 20-year-old man,” she said, adding that such a meme is not unusual on social media.
In addition to a first-degree murder charge, Fields faces five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three counts of malicious wounding related to eight of the 35 people who were injured, and one count of failure to stop at the scene of a fatal accident.
Absent a first-degree murder conviction, which requires an intent to kill, a jury could find Fields guilty of second-degree murder, punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
The trial began last week in Charlottesville Circuit Court, just blocks from where Heyer was killed on a road now named Heather Heyer Way. A makeshift memorial of flowers and posters bearing her name still sits along the narrow, one-way street.
Defense attorneys rested their case Thursday after a long delay involving their last witness, Joshua Matthews, who was among the last people to spend time with Fields in the minutes leading up to the crash. Matthews, who was held in contempt for failing to show up to court on time, testified that he drove to Charlottesville to attend “Unite the Right” and met Fields and two other rallygoers that afternoon. By then, chaos had erupted downtown between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a state of emergency had been declared and the rally had been canceled before it was scheduled to begin.
Matthews said he and Fields parted ways shortly after 1 p.m., when Fields dropped him off at a garage where he had left his car. Fields seemed calm, normal and “maybe a little bit scared” in the short time he was with him, Matthews testified.
Testimony on Thursday began with Dwayne Dixon, a teaching assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the anti-fascist group Redneck Revolt. He testified that he was in the downtown area before the crash occurred, providing “perimeter support” for counterprotesters and carrying a rifle, when he saw a “gray muscle car” he later believed belonged to Fields, the Daily Progress reported. He yelled at the driver to leave, he said.
Prosecutors countered with testimony from Steven Young, a Charlottesville police detective, who analyzed Fields’s phone data to determine his location that day. He said the data showed Fields was not in the area of Fourth Street at the time Dixon claimed to have seen his car.
Prosecutors asked the jury to find Fields guilty of first-degree murder, while Lunsford asked that they find him guilty of “no more” than involuntary manslaughter and unlawful wounding.
In her final address to the jury after Lunsford’s closing remarks, Antony showed a close-up of Fields’s face to rebut the idea that he was frightened when he drove his car into the crowd.
“This is not the face of someone who is scared,” Antony said. “This is the face of anger, of hatred. It’s the face of malice.”
The jury is set to begin deliberations Friday morning.