National News

In Charlottesville Murder Trial, Courtroom Relives Trauma of a Violent Day

Posted December 5, 2018 9:21 p.m. EST

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In a courtroom this week in Charlottesville, Virginia, a chilling videotape played for the jury captured the voice of James Fields Jr., an Ohio man who attended a white nationalist rally here last year and crashed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters.

“Are they OK?” Fields could be heard asking a police officer after his arrest. Told that people had been injured, and that someone had died, Fields began hyperventilating and sobbing. The courtroom filled with the sound of his cries.

Many of those who were protesting the Unite the Right rally that day in August 2017 had spent much of the past year thinking of Fields, but had never heard his voice until they heard the tape. Some of the victims seated in the public gallery burst into tears, putting their arms around one another’s shoulders in an unbroken chain. Susan Bro, mother of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed, shook her head: These were crocodile tears, she said later.

At the defense table, Fields cast his eyes down and stabbed at the table with a pencil.

The murder trial unfolding in Charlottesville Circuit Court, where testimony could wrap up as early as Thursday, has led to an odd reunion of sorts more than 16 months after the most violent of a series of rallies over Confederate monuments across the South pitted white nationalists and members of the alt-right against anti-racism activists.

Sitting on one side of the courtroom are a row of victims, almost all of them activists who had turned out in protest of the rally, which featured Confederate battle flags, Nazi symbols, and racist and anti-Semitic slogans. A close-knit group, they have become even closer, bonded by the camaraderie of a fatal event. Some of them said the trial presented the possibility of a slice of justice in a world that seems to have little of it.

“I want him to spend the rest of his life in prison, so that he can’t hurt anyone else ever again,” said Star Peterson, an activist with bright pink hair who had both her legs and her back broken that day.

Across the aisle are those sympathetic to the defense. Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, attended one day, watching the proceedings in her wheelchair. Another day, Gregory Conte, former operations director for the National Policy Institute, an alt-right think tank, sat on that side of the courtroom.

In a recent piece published by the website Russia Insider, Conte wrote that “the real criminals” at the Aug. 12 rally were “the anarchists, black thugs, and degenerates.”

Throughout the trial, which began Nov. 26, the two sides have had little interaction.

“It’s like a wedding,” said Matthew Christensen, who has been hired by a local charity to support victims during the trial.

Molly Conger, a self-described socialist, sat cross-legged on a bench at the back of the courtroom, furiously scribbling notes. Since the rally in August, she has become a full-time activist, devoted to documenting legal proceedings involving white nationalism and the alt-right.

Conger, who has been creating a daily podcast about the trial for a local radio station, said the trial has brought home the reality of what happened during the deadly rally.

“You forget that a person did this, not an ideology,” she said.

Conger said she receives threats regularly over social media. “One guy had a Twitter account devoted entirely to fantasizing about sexually abusing my dogs,” she said, adding: “I have two miniature dachshunds that should just be left out of all this.”

Fields is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding and driving away from the scene of an accident, among other charges, and could face up to life in prison if convicted. While Heyer was the only person killed when the car he was driving plowed into the crowd, more than two dozen people were injured, some of them seriously.

The defense has not disputed that Fields was at the wheel but has argued that he felt he was under attack — though video footage played by the prosecution showed his car idling at an intersection before it sped toward the crowd. Seated at the defense table, Fields has been largely quiet, scribbling notes “as if he’s writing a college paper,” as Peterson described it. He is 21 years old, but looks much older, stooped over during much of the trial and dressed in a mint-gray cardigan and clunky glasses. He has shown little sign of emotion or — as Peterson said she kept hoping to see — remorse.

He sat stone-faced during the most damning evidence, testimony about the injuries and surgeries, and the text message exchange he had with his mother the day before the rally, telling her he was planning to drive from Ohio to attend the event. “Be careful,” his mother wrote him, according to evidence introduced at the trial. “We’re not the one[s] who have to be careful,” Fields replied, including in his text message a picture of Adolf Hitler.

In the tapes that the prosecutor played of his conversations with the police, one of them from a police officer’s body camera, Fields apologized repeatedly.

“I’m really sorry,” he told the officer who arrested him, his voice sounding flat. “I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me.”

It was only when he was told that someone had died that he showed any emotion.

And it was that tape that seemed to bring the violence of that day powerfully home to many of those in the courtroom.

When the sound of Fields’ sobs could be heard on the tape, “It really hit me,” said Katrina Turner, who was at the site of the crash, but was uninjured. “It took me back to that day, and the victims, and how they screamed for help.”

Later, prosecutors played a tape of a phone conversation that Fields had with his mother from jail, months later.

In it, he reprimanded his mother sharply for appearing to sympathize with the grief Bro felt over her daughter.

“She’s a communist,” he said. “An anti-white liberal.”

Fields looked down at the table as the tape played. Through it all, Conger has tried to make sense of the courtroom events for her listeners. When the tape of Fields crying played in the courtroom, she told her followers on Twitter that she was not convinced he was feeling remorseful.

“There is a fundamental difference between remorse and the self pity of someone who realizes their actions have real consequences,” Conger wrote on Twitter. “James Alex Fields was not crying for Heather Heyer. He was crying for himself.”