“That’s what someone’s eyes look like when they’re dead,” is the only thought that went through anti-racist activist Star Peterson’s mind as she saw Heather Heyer flying through the air.
Peterson had just been run over by a white supremacist in a Dodge Challenger on Fourth Street on August 12, 2017.
Peterson recounted her experience in testimony on the second day of evidence presented to the jury in the trial against James Fields, who’s charged with first-degree murder for killing Heyer, along with five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit and run.
His attorneys have not disputed that he was the one driving the car that barrelled into the crowd that day, smashing into a parked Toyota Camry, which then crashed into a Honda Odyssey, before Fields backed up—running over Peterson and others again—and sped off.
Tadrint Washington, who drove the Camry, didn’t realize she’d been hit. She was caught up in the excitement of the activists joyfully chanting, singing, and claiming victory over the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who came to town to hold their Unite the Right rally that day.
“I never seen so many white people standing up for black people,” she testified. But then she heard a “big, big, big noise,” and “thought a bomb went off.” That was when the Challenger hit her.
She’d seen the car before. While describing the process of navigating around the downtown area, which had numerous road closures for the rally, she said the Challenger was right behind her. “Every turn I make, he’s making the same turns because the roads are blocked off,” she said. And as they were crossing the Downtown Mall on Fourth Street, she saw him stop and start backing up. She assumed this was because the oncoming crowd and the minivan already stopped at the bottom of the street meant it would be a while before any of the vehicles could proceed.
But once Fields slammed on the gas and hit her, she said, she believes she lost consciousness for a few moments. When she regained her vision, she said, “I remember opening my eyes and seeing someone on top of my car, and it freaked me out.”
Minutes before, Lizete Short, the driver of the Odyssey, had stopped her car where Fourth Street meets Water Street to let the crowd of demonstrators pass in front of her. When they turned up Fourth Street, streaming past her van on both sides, she parked and got out to capture a moment she said she was sure would go down in history.
But the next thing she knew, her camera phone was knocked out of her hand, her van had collided into her, she had been propelled onto its hood, and was “being dragged across the street.”
Wednesday Bowie, another victim, testified that she was knocked into a parked truck as the Challenger backed up.
“I got hung up on the trunk of the car. I remember thinking ‘okay, I’m getting hit by a car,’” she said, adding that she lost consciousness after smashing into the truck and being thrown several additional feet onto the ground.
Her pelvis was broken in six places, and a fragmented piece of it sliced her femoral artery, she said.
“I was bleeding out internally as I waited for the ambulance,” she told the jury, adding that she required emergency surgery at UVA. On her second day in the hospital, she had a metal bar called an external fixator drilled through her lower half to hold her pelvis in place.
She also suffered a fractured orbital socket on one side of her face, a broken tailbone, three broken vertebrae, multiple lacerations, and road rash. Her pelvis healed diagonally, so her gait is permanently affected, and her steps are now uneven.
The jury also heard from former Daily Progress photojournalist Ryan Kelly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photo of the car hightailing it into the crowd. He described being on Fourth Street and seeing the Challenger stop midway down the street and start backing up.
“I heard screeching tires, the rev of an engine,” and then the car sped past him into the group of protesters. “People went flying. You heard thuds and screams and cries.”
Charlottesville Police Department Detective Jeremy Carper testified there were many “reddish brown stains,” or blood, found all over the Challenger, including on the windshield, the grill, the bumper, and on the Fourth Street asphalt. He also identified swabs of “soft tissue along the windshield” of the car.
The detective was assigned to hand out water and snacks to cops who were working that day, but was asked to respond to Monticello Avenue shortly after the car attack, where police took Fields into custody for a hit and run. That’s where Carper collected a water bottle that was likely thrown into the car during the commotion on Fourth Street, and a pair of sunglasses lodged under the rear spoiler.
He wore black gloves as he handled the evidence in court. He opened a brown bag with red tape to reveal the water bottle, and left the sunglasses inside their bag. The car’s grill was also present in the courtroom, wrapped in brown paper.
Carper said he then went to Fourth Street where he recovered the Challenger’s passenger side mirror, which was also covered in blood, and Heyer’s pants, which he said were cut in half as medics tried to revive her.
As Fields listened to the day’s testimony, he scribbled a few notes into a notepad. His face was expressionless. He wore a blue suit and black tie.
After introducing it in yesterday’s opening arguments, today prosecutors made available to the public a meme that Fields posted on Instagram on May 16, 2017, which shows a car plowing into a crowd of people, and says, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”
The defense has argued that the meme is not political in nature. We’ll see what the jury thinks about that.