Fifteen months after an angry demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville erupted in deadly mayhem, a self-professed neo-Nazi is set to go on trial Monday, charged with killing a counterprotester and injuring 35 others by intentionally ramming his car into another vehicle on a crowded street.
The alleged act of automotive rage by James Alex Fields Jr. on Aug. 12, 2017 — which climaxed a day of violent clashes involving hundreds of white supremacists and their opponents — helped make “Charlottesville” a shorthand term for the emergence of emboldened ethno-fascists in the era of President Trump.
Now Fields, 21, charged with first-degree murder and other crimes, is due to face a jury in Charlottesville Circuit Court as prosecutors, using video evidence from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, revive memories of racist and anti-Semitic hate spewed on the streets of the small city that is home to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
The counterprotester who was killed, Heather D. Heyer, 32, worked for a local law firm and was remembered by friends as a committed advocate of social justice. Fields, who drove to the rally from his apartment in Maumee, Ohio, near Toledo, was described by acquaintances as being deeply fascinated by Nazi Germany, often espousing admiration for the militarism and racial-purity dogma of the Third Reich.
With tight security and an expected heavy police presence outside the red-brick courthouse on High Street, jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning and could last until midweek, followed by opening statements and the start of testimony Wednesday or Thursday. Judge Richard E. Moore has set aside 14 weekdays, until Dec. 13, for the entire proceeding.
Fields has been held in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail while awaiting trial.
Three months ago, Moore declined to grant a change of trial venue for Fields, despite a defense attorney’s argument that impaneling an impartial jury of Charlottesville residents would be virtually impossible. The events of Aug. 12, 2017, publicized worldwide, forged a lasting impression on the community psyche, said attorney Denise Lunsford. She showed the judge reams of news stories about her client, who has pleaded not guilty.
At a preliminary hearing for Fields late last year, prosecutors Joe Platania and Nina-Alice Antony offered a preview of videos of the deadly crash, prompting gasps in the courtroom from friends and supporters of Heyer and her family.
Amid the tumult that Saturday in August, a crowd of counterprotesters was standing downtown at Fourth and Water streets in the early afternoon. A pickup truck approached the gathering and pulled to the side of the road. A van then stopped on the street in front of the crowd, and a Toyota Camry stopped behind the van.
A 2010 Dodge Challenger, allegedly driven by Fields, approached the Camry from behind at a moderate speed. It then backed up, traveling more than a block, before suddenly bolting forward at a rapid clip, slamming into the rear of the Camry. Heyer and several other people were standing near the vehicles when the impact occurred.
Compounding the tragedy, crew members of a Virginia State Police helicopter who recorded some of the video were killed in a crash later in the day. After monitoring the demonstration, Trooper Pilot Berke M.M. Bates and Lt. H. Jay Cullen were flying to a different assignment when their aircraft went down miles from Charlottesville.
In addition to first-degree murder, punishable by 20 years to life in state prison, Fields is charged with eight counts of aggravated malicious wounding, meaning that at least eight of the 35 injured victims were grievously hurt.
Separately, Fields has been charged by the Justice Department with an array of federal hate crimes related to the incident, including one offense that carries a possible death sentence. A trial date has not been set in that case, and the Justice Department has yet to announce whether it will seek capital punishment for Fields if he is convicted.
White-nationalist leaders Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, both University of Virginia graduates, organized the rally, ostensibly to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s decision, by a 3-to-2 vote, to take down a public statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Months before the demonstration, the council also had voted 3 to 2 to add new interpretive information to a statue of rebel Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The Lee and Jackson sculptures were erected in Charlottesville in the 1920s, honoring the Confederacy at a time when Jim Crow racism prevailed in the city.
Stunned by the outpouring of hate on their streets, council members took a new vote on the Lee and Jackson monuments after the rally, unanimously deciding to sell both sculptures to the highest bidder who would be willing to haul them away.
The statues remain in place under a court injunction issued after Confederate heritage defenders sued the city, arguing that a Virginia law prohibits the statues from being removed. The lawsuit, also before Moore, is scheduled for a trial in January.
In the aftermath of the rally, Trump’s response to the violence boosted the decibel level of public outrage.
Dozens of marchers who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans wore “Make America Great Again” caps and were vocal supporters of Trump. At a news conference, the president asserted that white supremacists and their opponents were equally to blame for the turmoil.
He decried “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” and later said there were “some very fine people” among the far-right demonstrators.
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who appeared at the rally, replied to Trump on Twitter, writing: “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”