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Man who drove into Charlottesville crowd had hate in his mind, prosecutor says; defense says it was fear

Man who drove into Charlottesville crowd had hate in his mind, prosecutor says; defense says it was fear
James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, with a shield bearing the logo of the white supremacist group Vanguard America during a rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. (Alan Goffinski / Associated Press)

A prosecutor told a jury Thursday that James Alex Fields Jr. had hate and violence in his mind when he deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally, killing one woman, injuring dozens and leaving bodies strewn on the ground.

As prosecutors urged jurors to find Fields guilty of first-degree murder and other felonies for the deadly August 2017 crash, his lawyers made a final attempt to convince them that Fields had plowed into the crowd out of fear.

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The jury is scheduled to begin deliberating the case Friday morning.

During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors portrayed Fields as a white nationalist who became angry after police forced crowds at the rally to disband. The police action followed violent clashes between the white nationalists, who descended on Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and some of the counterdemonstrators who showed up to oppose the white nationalists.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Atty. Nina-Alice Antony reminded the jurors about a text message sent by Fields the day before the rally that included an image of Adolf Hitler. Fields sent the text to his mother in response to her plea for him to be careful. Fields wrote: “we’re not the one (sic) who need to be careful,” accompanied by Hitler’s image.

Antony also repeatedly reminded the jurors about a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the crash. The image shows bodies tossed into the air after a car plows into a crowd identified as “protesters.”

“What we have is a man who had a decision, and he decides to turn his Instagram post into reality,” she said.

Defense attorney Denise Lunsford urged the jury to consider the chaos earlier that day, when street fights broke out between the two groups and tear gas was thrown.

Lunsford said Fields had urine thrown at him, had been yelled at by counterprotesters and found himself alone and unprotected as he attempted to leave Charlottesville and drive back to his home in Maumee, Ohio. She said he saw a large crowd down the street surrounding two other cars and feared he would be attacked.

“Look at the circumstances as they appeared to him,” Lunsford said.

“He says he felt he was in danger; there were people coming at him.”

Antony told the jury no one was near Fields’ car when he drove into the crowd. She said he idled in his car for more than a minute before backing up, then speeding into the crowd.

“He gets toward that group and he goes for them,” she said.

Fields, 21, faces charges of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist. He also faces five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and a count of leaving the scene of an accident.

James Alex Fields Jr. in an artist's rendering during jury selection on Nov. 26.
James Alex Fields Jr. in an artist's rendering during jury selection on Nov. 26. (Izabel Zermani / Associated Press)

Lunsford urged the jury to find Fields guilty of “no more than” the lesser charges of manslaughter in Heyer’s death and unlawful wounding in the injuries he caused to others.

In testimony earlier Thursday, a man who was with Fields shortly before the crash said he appeared calm and “maybe a little bit scared.”

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Joshua Matthews said he met Fields in a Charlottesville park where white nationalists had gathered. After police declared an “unlawful assembly,” Fields, Matthews and two other people decided to walk together “as it would probably be more safe,” Matthews said.

He said while they were walking, a group of “antifas” — short for anti-fascists — yelled at them. He said Fields yelled something back, although he said he couldn’t remember what Fields said.

The defense also called to the stand a left-wing defense group member who claimed in an earlier social media post that he had scared Fields away from a park where counterprotesters had gathered about an hour before Fields plowed his car into the crowd.

Dwayne Dixon, a teaching assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he’s also a member of Redneck Revolt and was armed with an AR-15 and providing security for counter-protesters.

He testified that he saw a gray “muscle car” drive by several times. He said he yelled, “Get ... out of here” at the car while wearing his gun slung over his shoulder. He testified that he could not see the driver because the car had tinted windows.

Dixon said he believes that was about 30 minutes to an hour before Fields slammed into the group with his car.

Prosecutors called a Charlottesville police detective as a rebuttal witness in an attempt to cast doubt on Dixon’s account.

The detective said geolocation data from Fields’ phone indicates his car was in the vicinity of the park only once, about four minutes before Fields struck counterprotesters in a different location.

A makeshift memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13, 2017, the day after she was killed.
A makeshift memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13, 2017, the day after she was killed. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)
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