It took three long days to seat a jury of 12 with four alternates. After all, it’s a national story and the video and photographs of a Dodge Challenger plowing into a group of counterprotesters have been viewed over and over.
The defense does not dispute that James Alex Fields Jr., 21, was driving the car that accelerated down Fourth Street August 12, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more. Trickier is explaining why Fields is not guilty of first-degree murder, five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three of malicious wounding.
In opening statements today, the legal teams laid out their arguments to the jurors.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina Antony described a crowd of joyful counterprotesters marching down Water Street and turning left onto Fourth Street after the Unite the Right rally had been declared an unlawful assembly. She also noted Fields, who had turned onto Fourth, was “idling,” and “watching” the crowd of people on the other side of the Downtown Mall.
“Suddenly there is a screech,” Antony told the jurors. “People in the front of the crowd start diving.”
Heyer, “is directly in his path. She is unable to get out of the way. Her blood and her flesh” are on his car, she said.
“This is about what his intent was,” said Antony, promising to present evidence about Fields’ actions before, during and after the carnage.
Jurors learned that Fields left his home in Maumee, Ohio, August 11, 2017, and drove 500 miles through the night to arrive around 3am in Charlottesville to attend the Unite the Right rally, which featured marquee names of the alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist movements.
He brought no suitcase, no shampoo, and had no hotel reservation, according to his attorney John Hill. The only change of clothes he brought was a white polo shirt and long pants. “It was the uniform of the day,” said Hill.
Hill suggested that fear of serious bodily injury instigated Fields’ actions. Fields had been given a hard time from some counterprotesters, and “anger, fear, and rumors” were swirling around that day. “We’ll tell you why Mr. Fields is not guilty,” he said.
But he didn’t, in the opinion of defense attorney Janice Redinger, who watched opening statements from the auxiliary courtroom on Levy Avenue.
“It’s most critical for the defense to put out their narrative” in the opening statements, she says. Whether it’s that Fields was scared or it was in self defense, “I didn’t get the story,” she says. Typically the defense tells jurors, “You’re going to hear evidence and reasons why it wasn’t premeditated.”
She adds, “You have to grab the jury from the get go.”
Redinger thinks Antony did a good job in her opening. “It’s telling a story,” she says.
She also applauds the commonwealth’s decision to use Michael Webster, who was not a counterprotester and “was going to lunch,” as its first witness. Webster negated the defense’s suggestion that Fields was threatened by testifying that the mall was deserted and no one was near his car.
Antony referred to the Unite the Right rally as a “political rally” that brought people to town to promote a “conservative ideology.”
“I was disappointed it wasn’t a little more hard hitting,” says Redinger. The neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology “was the whole reason for the rally.”
Antony did promise jurors they will see two images from Instagram Fields had posted in May 2017—that of a car running into a crowd of people.
The prosecution called seven witnesses, four of whom were victims of the car attack. Most heartrending was Marcus Martin, the man who was shown being catapulted over Fields’ car in Ryan Kelly’s famous photograph.
Martin was visibly emotional on the witness stand. Antony handed him a box of tissues, and Judge Rick Moore instructed, “Mr. Martin, take a deep breath.”
Martin knew Heyer from his fiancee, Marissa Blair, and friend Courtney Commander, both of whom worked with Heyer. In the difficult-to-hear Charlottesville Circuit Court, it sounded like he said Heyer “is a great person.”
Brennan Gilmore, who videoed the Challenger accelerating down Fourth Street, testified that he’d been documenting the day and was standing on the mall when he heard the sound of a vehicle “traveling very, very fast” for the Downtown Mall crossing. “I heard a sickening sound and saw bodies flying everywhere,” he said.
Gilmore was a foreign service officer in the State Department for 15 years, and said he had training in “high-threat environments.” He’d felt no threat on Fourth Street before the attack.
Charlottesville native Brian Henderson works for the city in the Department of Social Services and he thought he should be in his hometown August 12 after being out of town July 8, 2017, when the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest here. He walked throughout the city that day, and said that in the afternoon, “It was a better feeling than in the morning.”
Henderson had become part of the group that turned onto Fourth Street. He pulled out his phone when he heard “someone singing ‘Lean On Me’ and they didn’t know the words,” he testified.
Into that celebratory zone, Fields’ Challenger zoomed. “I tried to put my arms up and fly like Superman,” Henderson testified.
When asked to identify himself in images of the attack, the box of tissues came back to the witness stand. “Forgive me,” he said. “It’s just a little hard to look at.”
What Henderson initially thought was a broken left arm turned out to be much more serious, with a severed nerve. He also suffered four broken ribs.
Fields, who wore a navy pullover sweater and collared shirt, sat impassively as Henderson, Martin, and two other witnesses described their injuries.
The trial is expected to last three weeks. Judge Moore instructed jurors to not go to Fourth and Water streets. He also warned both the public and media that no one should approach jurors, who are identified in court by numbers, or take photos of them. “If anyone snaps your photo, let me know,” he told the jury.
Heyer’s mother Susan Bro, who’s become an activist since her daughter was killed, was in court, just back from talking to Congress and telling its members to “count” because “Charlottesville is not in the numbers of hate crimes.”
Gil Harrington, founder of Help Save the Next Girl and mother of Morgan Harrington, who died at the hands of serial murderer Jesse Matthew, also was present. She said she has an affinity for supporting the mothers of “murdered girls in Charlottesville.”