The Charlottesville Murder Trial Is Beginning. Here’s What We Know.
Posted November 30, 2018 1:20 a.m. EST
Fifteen months after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, devolved into stunning violence, the trial of the man accused of plowing his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring several others, is finally underway.
It’s unlikely that the case against James Fields Jr., a 21-year-old Ohio man who reportedly embraced Nazi ideology, will shed new light on the violence that erupted Aug. 12, 2017. Witness accounts of victims and emergency workers have already been detailed at length in the news media, pretrial hearings, and at least one exhaustive report.
But the trial in Charlottesville Circuit Court marks the beginning of a legal reckoning with the worst act of violence that day, a gray car accelerating into a crowd of counterprotesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than two-dozen others. Local prosecutors have charged Mr. Fields with first-degree murder, malicious wounding, and failure to stop at an accident involving a death.
Fields, who faces a life sentence, has also been charged in federal court on hate crime charges, in which the death penalty could be imposed.
Here are four things to know about the trial:
Several people have been prosecuted for crimes related to the “Unite the Right” rally.
The trial is the culmination of a flurry of prosecutions of lesser-known violent acts. At least six people have been tried and convicted of crimes associated with the rally.
In the brutal beating of a black man in a parking garage, which was captured on video, Jacob Goodwin of Arkansas and Alex Ramos of Georgia were sentenced to eight years and six years in prison, respectively. A third man, Daniel Borden of Ohio, has not yet been sentenced for his role in the attack. The victim of that beating, DeAndre Harris of Charlottesville, was accused of assault in an earlier incident but was acquitted.
The mayhem that day also featured a confrontation between a Ku Klux Klan leader who fired a gun in the general direction of a black man who lit the spray from an aerosol can on fire, creating a makeshift blow torch. No one was struck by the bullet, or hurt by the fire. But the KKK leader, Richard W. Preston Jr. of Maryland, was sentenced to four years in prison for discharging a weapon in a school zone, while Corey Long of Culpeper, Virginia, was sentenced to 20 days in jail and 100 hours of community service for igniting the fire.
Christopher Cantwell, a New Hampshire man who argues that white people deserve a separate country, pleaded guilty to releasing pepper spray into a crowd. He spent 107 days in jail and was banned from re-entering Virginia for five years.
The organizer of the rally has not been criminally charged. Jason Kessler, a University of Virginia graduate, obtained a permit to hold the rally, and the courts upheld his right. However, a lawsuit brought by the rally’s victims against Kessler argues that the rally’s attendees plotted to commit the violence that unfolded.
There were dozens more victims of the car attack.
Dozens were injured in the car attack at the rally, and some of them suffered life-changing injuries that have prevented them from returning to work. A charitable fund has helped pay rent and other expenses for victims.
Many victims are set to testify in the trial. Star Petersen, a single mother who suffered two broken legs, a broken rib and a broken back, is expected to take the stand Friday.
The car attack spurred some victims to become even more dedicated to the anti-racism activism that led them to protest at the Unite the Right rally.
James Fields faces a second trial after this one ends.
In the current case, prosecutors must prove that Fields intentionally crashed his car into a crowd, causing death. But in the coming federal trial, prosecutors must prove that he intended to harm people because of their perceived race, color, religion or national origin. They will be relying on a 2009 federal hate crimes statute.
“Last summer’s violence in Charlottesville cut short a promising young life and shocked the nation,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement in June when Fields was indicted. “Today’s indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation.”
Fields is expected to claim mental illness and self-defense.
In pretrial hearings, Fields told a judge that he was under treatment for bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. Witnesses for the defense are expected to testify about his mental state.
During jury selection, his lawyers informed potential jurors that Fields believed he was protecting himself when he drove into the crowd. A detective who interviewed Fields moments after the crash said Fields repeatedly apologized and asked if anyone had been injured. When he was told that a person died, he appeared shocked and began to sob.