The scene December 14 at Charlottesville Circuit Court was like a flashback to August 12. A heavy police presence closed High Street outside the courthouse and barricades kept protesters from the man many consider the perp of the day’s fatal finale, Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler.
Inside the courtroom, more than 20 victims and family members, including Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, filled three rows and faced the man accused of plowing into a crowd on Fourth Street and killing Heyer.
James Alex Fields, 20, entered the room shackled and in a gray-and-white prison jumpsuit, sporting a beard grown during the past four months in jail. Flanked by his attorneys, former Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney Denise Lunsford and James Hill, Fields mostly kept his eyes down, and occasionally made a note during the proceedings.
Security inside the courtroom put local reporters in the first two rows, and deputies refused to allow anyone to sit in the immediate rows behind them, creating a buffer around Fields and a lot of empty seats for a case with intense public interest.
And Kessler, who was called “murderer” as he entered the courthouse and who spoke to a TV camera during a break to denounce Charlottesville as “communist” and the proceedings as a “kangaroo court,” often had a row entirely to himself.
Most shocking for many in the courtroom was watching previously unseen videos of the Fields-driven 2010 Dodge Challenger flooring it into the counter demonstrators. The first shown was from a Virginia State Police helicopter piloted by Lieutenant Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke Bates, who died when their chopper crashed three hours later.
“Shit! Holy crap! Did you see that?” one of the pilots hovering above asked. “I can’t believe he did that.”
The helicopter video followed Fields as he backed up Fourth Street, dragging the Challenger’s front bumper, drove east on Market Street, turned right to drive across the Belmont Bridge and then turned left onto Monticello Avenue, where he stopped about a mile from the scene that left 36 people injured, according to the prosecution’s only witness, Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young.
One of the victims, Ohio resident Bill Burke, who was hospitalized from his injuries, returned for the preliminary hearing and stared at Fields after the state police video of the crash.
Even more chilling was footage from Red Pump Kitchen, the Italian restaurant on the corner of the Downtown Mall and Fourth Street.
First are the vehicles that drove down Fourth Street, which was supposed to be closed: a maroon van, a black pickup truck and a ragtop white Camry, which were all stopped by the counterprotesters who had marched east on Water Street and turned left onto Fourth.
Then the Dodge Challenger slowly drives down Fourth—and pauses out of view near the mall crossing for nearly a minute. The car is seen backing up, and a moment later it speeds by.
“Take me out of this fucking shit,” yelled Marcus Martin, who was seen in photographs of the day being flipped over Fields’ car after it rammed into the crowd. Others in court wiped tears from their eyes.
At the beginning of the hearing, the prosecution upgraded a second-degree murder charge against Fields to first-degree murder for the death of Heyer, 32, which carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison. He’s also charged with three counts of malicious wounding, three of aggravated malicious wounding, two of felony assault and one count of felony failure to stop.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina Antony questioned Young, who was on the scene after Fields was arrested at Monticello and Blenheim avenues. The detective noted the heavy front end damage to the Challenger and “what appeared to be blood and flesh on the front of the vehicle.”
Young also described two holes in the rear window and said they were made “after the initial crash,” which disputes allegations some white nationalists have made that Fields was surrounded by car-bashing protesters and feared for his life.
Fields, who drove to Charlottesville from Ohio, was known to spout Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric, according to his Kentucky high school social studies teacher.
During the rally, he stood with members of Vanguard America, but under questioning from Lunsford, Young testified there was no evidence Fields was a member of the white nationalist group.
After the rally was declared an unlawful assembly, Fields walked with three Vanguard Americans from Emancipation to McIntire Park , and Lunsford asked if they described him as “significantly less radical than some of those at the rally,” to which Young answered, yes.
When the detective first encountered him, Fields asked if anyone was hurt. And upon learning someone had died, he appeared shocked, testified Young.
“Did he cry and sob?” asked Lunsford.
“Yes,” replied the investigator.
Judge Bob Downer found probable cause to certify the charges to the grand jury, which meets December 18. If the grand jury indicts him, a trial date will be scheduled.