CHARLOTTESVILLE — Shortly before James A. Fields Jr. traveled here for a “Unite the Right” rally, he told his mother that he planned to attend. She told him to be careful.
“We’re not the one who need to be careful,” Fields replied in a misspelled text message on Aug. 11, 2017. He included an attachment: a meme showing Adolf Hitler.
Fields, a self-professed neo-Nazi, is accused of driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters the next day at this city’s downtown mall, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and wounding 35 others, some seriously.
The death followed a weekend of racial hate and violence that captured worldwide attention and tied this quiet college town to the emergence of emboldened white supremacists in the early months of the Trump administration.
The text exchange was shown to jurors Tuesday as the prosecution rested its case against Fields. It is among the pieces of evidence that provide a window into Fields’s state of mind before, during and in the hours and months after the fatal crash. Videos played in court Tuesday showed a young man sobbing after his arrest on that summer day and seemingly remorseful about what he had just done.
But that remorse appeared to be absent months later. In several phone calls he made from jail to his mother, Fields seemed hateful of the people he perceived as his political enemies. He called Heyer’s mother, who had been speaking publicly about her daughter’s death, a “communist.”
Over the objection of the defense lawyers, Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore ruled Tuesday morning that the text message and the accompanying Hitler image could be presented to jurors as they decide whether Fields, 21, is guilty of first-degree murder and other counts.
Hitler and what he stood for are so widely known that adding his image to a text message is in itself a statement, Moore concluded. He said the text and the image, taken together, are relevant to Fields’s thinking.
Prosecutors argued that the text message and Hitler’s image help prove that Fields intended to harm the counterprotesters — his “perceived political and ideological opponents.” The image of Hitler “implies both aggression and violent intent,” prosecutors said in a motion filed Monday.
Fields’s defense attorneys sought to keep the image of Hitler — but not the entire text message exchange — from being shown to the jury, citing “possible unfair prejudice” to Fields.
The defense lawyers do not deny that Fields killed Heyer, but they have said that the evidence will show that he did what he did because he feared for his life and believed he needed to defend himself.
A first-degree murder conviction, which requires an intent to kill, carries a maximum punishment of life in prison. Absent that intent, a jury could find Fields guilty of second-degree murder, which is punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
In addition to the murder charge, Fields is charged with five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three counts of malicious wounding related to eight of the 35 people who were injured.
Prosecutors said an enraged Fields traveled from his hometown in Ohio to Charlottesville — and chose to act on that anger by driving his 2010 Dodge Challenger into the crowd. They said he backed up before barreling forward and crashing into another vehicle at the corner where the counterprotesters were gathered.
The crash happened on the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2017. A state of emergency had been declared following skirmishes and fights between opposing factions: the white supremacists and the counterprotesters who opposed their presence in Charlottesville. By afternoon, the white supremacists’ rally was canceled. And so counterprotesters, including families and children, were on the downtown mall, celebrating, chanting and hugging, witnesses testified.
Heyer, a paralegal and activist, joined the march with her friend and co-worker Marissa Blair Martin and Martin’s then-fiance, Marcus Martin. But the celebration turned into “moments of terror,” Blair Martin testified Monday. She said she heard tires screeching, and her fiance pushed her away from the car’s path.
Heyer was on the ground, and she had no pulse by the time first responders arrived. She died of blunt-force trauma to the chest; her aorta had been torn, testified Jennifer Nicole Bowers, an assistant chief medical examiner.
Her blood was found on Fields’s car, testified Kristin Van Itallie, a DNA analyst.
Other crash victims have testified about the extent of their injuries as prosecutors showed pictures of broken bones and red marks.
Fields was arrested shortly after the crash. A police body camera video played in court captured his conversation with police.
“I’m really sorry,” Fields is heard saying to a detective, who then asked what he was apologizing for. “I’m really sorry that, I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me.”
During an interview shown in another video, detectives later told Fields that several people were severely injured. Fields sobbed for several minutes, breathing heavily between sniffles. He can be heard telling detectives that he was trying to leave when he saw the crowd on the downtown mall. He said he felt “really weird” and believed people were “coming at me.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said, still sniffling.
But a different Fields — one who seemed far less sympathetic of victims and their families — emerged months later. In a jail call to his mother on Dec. 7, 2017, he disparaged Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, and accused her of slandering him publicly.
“She’s a communist,” Fields can be heard saying.
“You need to stop talking,” his mother told him.
“She is a communist, Mother. . . . She is the enemy,” he said.
In another phone call months later, on March 21, Fields appeared to be talking about the crash, telling his mother that he had been attacked by a “violent group of terrorists” and that he was defending himself. He said antifascists, whom he called “antifa,” were waving flags of the Islamic State.
Jurors also were shown a now-deleted Instagram post that Fields shared months before the Charlottesville crash. “You Have the Right to Protest, But I’m Late for Work,” read the post shared on May 16, 2017, accompanied by an image of a car running into a group of people.
The defense was set to continue its case Wednesday.