Updated at 8:02 p.m.
A jury must now decide whether James Fields Jr. acted with malice when he drove into a crowd of counter-protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, or whether he acted out self-defense.
Thursday’s closing arguments in Charlottesville Circuit Court focused on Fields’ mindset when he drove into the crowd, killing 32 year-old Heather Heyer, severely wounding eight people and injuring more than 20 others. His attorney, Denise Lunsford, asked the jurors to convict him of “no more” than involuntary manslaughter in Heyer’s death.
As displayed in the opening statements, neither the prosecution nor the defense disputes that Fields was driving the gray Dodge Challenger that slammed into the crowd, capping off the chaotic and violent white supremacist Unite the Right rally.
Much of the closing arguments focused on Fields’ intent and used a meme he posted publicly on Instagram in May 2017 that showed a car plowing into a group of protesters.
The commonwealth posited that Fields acted with the specific intent to cause harm and kill, attacking a crowd of unarmed people. The defense took the stance that Fields was scared after a long, chaotic day in which he felt he was constantly being besieged.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony said the prosecution never intended to use the meme to suggest Fields had planned to ram into a crowd of protesters, but rather to show what he thought about protesters.
“What’s the image that pops into his mind when he saw the crowd of counter-protesters?,” Antony said. “When he seizes the opportunity to make his Instagram posts a reality.”
Lunsford urged the jurors not to read too heavily into the meme or Fields’ texts to his mother before the rally that included an image of Adolf Hitler. She pointed to footage from Fields’ arrest, where he apologized for ramming into the crowd and asked if anyone was hurt. That more accurately represented his mindset than a meme, she said.
Memes are similar to protest signs, she said, comparing it to a photograph presented in court Wednesday that showed a sign with the words “This machine kills fascists,” a reference to a phrase by folk singer Woody Guthrie that pertains to his guitar.
“I don’t mean to sound flippant, but that’s a lot of inference and assumptions based on one meme and one text,” Lunsford said.
Fields had walked back to his vehicle with others out of fear of being attacked, she said. The last of the three people he walked home with, Joshua Matthews, testified for the defense earlier in the day that Fields’ had seemed normal and “maybe a little scared.”
Matthews arrived hours late for his testimony and was arrested later on Thursday on a failure to appear charge, according to the online court system. He was brought out after the Fields proceedings finished Thursday and sentenced to time served.
Lunsford focused much of her closing argument on Fields being scared, pushing the idea that Dwayne Dixon, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lecturer and member of the leftist Redneck Revolt, may have frightened Fields.
Dixon testified that while he was armed with an AR-15 and guarding Court Square Park earlier on Aug. 12, 2017, he saw a “gray muscle car” at several times during the day. The third time he saw the vehicle, he said, he forcefully told the driver to “Get the f— out of here.” He said he would later come to believe it was Fields’ vehicle.
However, testimony from Detective Steve Young of the Charlottesville Police Department presented geolocation points from Fields’ Facebook phone app that show he never drove down the part of Fourth Street between High and Jefferson streets where Dixon was positioned.
“Don’t let her twist his testimony,” Antony said while addressing Lunsford’s Dixon argument in her closing statement.
While most of the victims and witnesses of the incident had described the crowd of counter-protesters as “happy” and celebratory, Lunsford said that for someone not aligned with them, the impression may have been different.
“The difference between a joyful crowd and a hostile mob is in the eye of the beholder,” Lunsford said.
Antony countered that there was no one behind Fields when he drove onto Fourth Street and he could have easily backed away from the incoming crowd. To use the excuse of self-defense removes all responsibility and human agency from Fields’ decision, she said.
Antony then zoomed in on a photo of Fields’ vehicle soon after he hit the crowd. Focusing on his face, she said he did not look scared or remorseful.
“That is not the face of someone who is scared, who thought there were people behind him and didn’t know what to do,” she said. “That is the face of anger, of hatred, the face of malice.”
After the attorneys finished their closing arguments, Judge Richard E. Moore dismissed four of the 16 jurors who had been selected as alternates. The remaining 12 — seven women and five men — now will have to decide Fields’ culpability on 10 charges.
He faces one count of first-degree murder, five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run.
Jury deliberation will formally begin at 9:30 a.m. Friday.