James Fields is going on trial for killing Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. Here's why jury selection will be tough.

Fields is facing state murder charges and 29 counts of federal hate crime charges — and the possibility of the death penalty.
November 26, 2018, 4:16pm
Fields is facing state murder charges and 29 counts of federal hate crime charges — and the possibility of the death penalty.

Jury selection starts Monday in the trial of the young Ohio man who plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during last year’s violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

Lawyers representing James Alex Fields Jr., 21, will face off against prosecutors in what’s likely to be a difficult and tense jury selection process, given that emotions over that day in August 2017 are still so raw for many residents of the small Virginia college town. Hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended on the town over the planned removal of a Confederate monument. They marched across the University of Virginia’s campus with torches, chanting anti-Semitic slurs. The next day, they paraded through the streets and brawled with counterprotesters for hours.

Jurors will consider whether Fields, who is facing first-degree state murder charges, intentionally drove his car into a downtown intersection where a crowd of counterprotesters, many of whom were nonwhite, were standing. The impact of the car sent bodies flying. Heyer, 32, was killed, and more than 35 were injured.

In addition to the murder charges, Fields is also facing three counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding, two counts of felonious assault, and one hit and run. Separately, Fields is also facing 29 counts of federal hate crime charges – and the possibility of the death penalty.

The pool of potential jurors totals 360, which, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is the largest in recent memory.

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Denise Lunsford, the former head prosecutor for Albemarle County, is representing Fields, who’d traveled to the rally from his home in Ohio. In August, Lunsford filed a motion to move the trial to a different venue, arguing that it would be very hard to find an impartial jury in Charlottesville, which is still reeling from the rally. Lunsford also presented more than 2,000 pages of local news reports, suggesting that jurors would be biased from media coverage. Charlottesville Circuit Court judge Richard E. Moore said he thinks that it’s possible to seat an unbiased jury, but added that he would consider her arguments during the trial.

After accelerating into the crowd, video footage shows Fields rapidly reversing his car, hitting more people in the process, and speeding off. He was apprehended by a deputy about one mile away from the attack, and arrested.

Fields, who was 20 at the time, was photographed marching alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists earlier in the day, clad in the white polo shirt and khaki uniform worn by many other attendees. He was also photographed holding a shield emblazoned with the logo of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi hate group.

Fields has pled not guilty to all charges, but we know little about what line of defense his lawyer will likely take. During his arraignment on federal charges earlier this year, Fields told a judge that he was receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Charlottesville police detective Steven Young, who testified that Fields’ car was badly damaged on the front and covered with blood and flesh at the back, also said that he sobbed upon learning that a woman had been killed, following his arrest.

The jury selection process is expected to take days, and the trial expected to go on for weeks.

Cover: In this Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, photo, James Alex Fields Jr. stands on the sidewalk looking at the procession of the clergy as they gathered at McGaffey park, ahead of a rally in Charlottesville, Va. Fields is accused of ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters Saturday in Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring over a dozen others. (Eze Amos via AP)