Was Charlottesville death a result of panic or a deliberate attack? Jury to start deciding Friday

A Virginia jury will begin deliberations Friday morning in the trial of James Fields, who killed a counterpr...

Posted: Dec 7, 2018 10:22 AM
Updated: Dec 7, 2018 10:22 AM

A Virginia jury will begin deliberations Friday morning in the trial of James Fields, who killed a counterprotester at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

Fields faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, who was protesting against the "Unite the Right" rally. Fields drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters that included Heyer, 32, after a day of tense clashes between members of alt-right groups and those opposed to their presence.

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Fields also faces eight other counts related to eight people injured in the crash, as well as one count of failing to stop at an accident involving a death.

Judge Richard Moore sent jurors home Thursday night after attorneys made their cases one last time to the panel of seven women and five men, which includes one black man and 11 white people.

In her closing argument, defense lawyer Denise Lunsford described the incident as the result of a "perfect storm" of events over which Fields had no control, sending him into a panic.

Earlier in the day, he was hit with something that could have been urine, she said. He had just left the company of people he was with earlier and felt vulnerable by himself, Lunsford said. She said he believed a group of protesters behind him was about to swarm his car, although no evidence was presented to support that.

"He thought people were after him," she said. "The difference between a joyful crowd and an angry mob lies in the beholder."

In its closing argument, the Commonwealth hammered home the heart of its case, that Fields was unprovoked and acted with the intent to harm people.

Throughout the day of the rally, Fields was never harassed or assaulted, nor was he ever in any kind of peril, prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony said.

His social media postings, texts with his mom and jail phone calls reflect his true feelings and intentions, Antony said. During the trial, prosecutors introduced into evidence Instagram posts by Fields of memes showing a car driving into a group of people described as protesters.

"His Instagram posts tell you exactly what he thinks of the type of people who take to the streets to protest," Antony said.

"And when he passes that happy crowd in front of him on Fourth Street, those images pop into his head and he seizes on the opportunity to make his Instagram posts a reality," she said.

Witnesses describe Fields' mood before the deadly crash

Attorneys delivered their closing arguments after testimony from the final defense witness.

Joshua Matthews described the moments before Fields plowed into the counterprotesters on August 12, 2017. Fields appeared "calm and normal," Matthews testified, adding "maybe he seemed a little scared."

His testimony was largely consistent with other defense witnesses, who told the court that Fields didn't appear angry or agitated before he got behind the wheel of his car.

While walking with other rallygoers, however, Fields allegedly yelled back at a counterprotester who shouted something along of the lines of "Get out of our town," according to Matthews. The witness said he couldn't recall what Fields said.

On Wednesday, fellow protesters testified that Fields asked them to lunch shortly before ramming his car into a throng of people.

Hayden Calhoun and his girlfriend declined, Calhoun testified.

Twenty minutes later, Fields plowed into the crowd.

Calhoun said he and his girlfriend attended the rally and spent part of the day with Fields, whom they had just met that day.

Calhoun testified that Fields was calm and seemed tired.

Under cross-examination, Calhoun testified that the only interactions he and Fields had with counterprotesters were verbal, not physical. Calhoun said counterprotesters didn't attack them or throw anything at them.

Previously, Fields had described counterprotesters as "a violent mob of terrorists."

Footage of the crash showed Fields' Dodge Challenger careening into pedestrians, sending some airborne.

On Wednesday, Trooper Clifford Lee Thomas, a crash reconstructionist for the Virginia State Police, testified that Fields had accelerated to a maximum of 28 mph before crashing into a Toyota Camry.

The impact caused the Camry to go from zero to 17 mph in 150 milliseconds, Thomas said.

Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young and Calhoun's girlfriend, Sarah Bolstad, also testified before the court took a lunch break.

Bolstad said she met Fields when they were turned away from McIntire Park by police. She testified she and Calhoun were approached by Fields and another man, who suggested they travel together as there is safety in numbers.

"I felt really comfortable with them," she said. She added that Fields "didn't seem angry" and "seemed normal."

She never saw Fields during times when bottles were being thrown, she told the court.

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