In an August 30 motions hearing in Charlottesville Circuit Court, a judge heard arguments for why a three-week first-degree murder trial for the man charged with driving a Dodge Challenger into a crowd on Fourth Street last summer should be moved out of the city.
Defendant James Fields, who wore a black-and-white-striped jail jumpsuit and handcuffs, was attentive during the hearing. He scrawled a note on a yellow legal pad to his attorney, Denise Lunsford, who smiled when she read it, and patted him on the shoulder.
As evidence that there’s too much negative publicity surrounding his trial to seat a fair and impartial jury here, Lunsford submitted approximately 250 local news articles that reference Fields.
She told Judge Rick Moore that the articles said Heather Heyer, the woman killed during the car attack, “died because of white supremacy,” that she was “murdered,” that Fields is a “neo-Nazi,” who “came to kill,” and committed an act of “domestic terror.”
Moore said he hadn’t read all of the articles she submitted, “But what I have read is accurate, and it’s not inflammatory.”
Other submitted articles discuss the longstanding effect and trauma that August 12, 2017, has had on the community of 48,000 people.
Lunsford specifically referenced an August 8, 2018, C-VILLE Weekly story titled, “Telling the lion’s story: Charlottesville’s faith community employs activism to unite against supremacy.” In the article, Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Tom Gutherz noted the stress felt by members of the synagogue, which is located only a few blocks from courts where white supremacists—who often bring groups of like-minded friends along for support—have been tried throughout the year.
She also said the average local person could have trouble distinguishing Fields’ murder trial in circuit court from the hate crimes he’s been indicted on in federal court, and she pointed to the tenor of the press release announcing the federal indictments.
“At the Department of Justice, we remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target,” the June 27 press release said.
“Think about all that,” Lunsford told the judge.
Prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony said Lunsford has “very valid concerns,” but said most of her argument is based on speculation and not fact.
In trials for Jacob Goodwin and Alex Ramos, two men found guilty of malicious wounding for attacking DeAndre Harris in the Market Street Parking Garage on August 12, attorneys made similar motions to change venue, but Antony said they didn’t have trouble seating a jury for either case.
Attorneys will select a 12-person jury from a pool of 360 people for the Fields trial, instead of the usual pool of 40-60 people. And like in the cases of Goodwin and Ramos, they’re planning to send each potential juror a questionnaire beforehand, to weed out any jurors with biases that they can’t set aside for the trial.
Judge Moore decided to follow the prosecutor’s recommendation and take the motion to change venue under advisement. The attorneys will attempt to seat a jury when Fields’ trial begins November 27, and if it proves impossible, Moore will again consider moving the trial.
The attorneys also entered three consent orders at the hearing.
The first asked the judge for permission not to file documents related to subpoenaed witnesses until November 26—the evening before the trial is set to begin—in order to keep witness names and information private, so media, or anyone else, can’t reach out to them beforehand.
The second consent order was to bar “signs, tokens, and insignia” in support of Fields or the victims from the courtroom during the trial, so as to not influence the jury, and the third was to allow Lunsford an additional $2,000 to hire someone to help review potential jurors.