Defense attorneys for James Alex Fields Jr. do not appear to dispute that he was behind the wheel of his car when it plowed into a crowd of people, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017.
Instead, opening statements and witness testimony on Thursday focused on whether he acted maliciously or in self-defense.
“This is not about what the defendant did, it’s about why he did it,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony said.
Defense attorney John Hill said the violent atmosphere in Charlottesville that day caused his client to be afraid for his safety.
“We’re going to show you why this event took place,” Hill said. “Was it intended to be malicious, or was it done to protect himself?”
Among the prosecution’s evidence of guilt: two Instagram posts featuring car attacks made by Fields months before the rally, as well as video footage of Fields marching with a group chanting, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Fields, a 21-year-old Ohio resident, sat quietly as opening statements were heard Thursday, as did members of the jury, whittled down to 16 before noon. Also in Charlottesville Circuit Court were Susan Bro and other members of Heyer’s family.
The car attack came after authorities declared the white supremacist Unite the Right rally to be an unlawful assembly, forcing ralliers and counter-protesters to move away from the two downtown Charlottesville parks featuring statues of two Confederate generals.
Seven witnesses on Thursday described a celebratory scene at Fourth and Water streets before Fields’ Dodge Charger drove into a large group of counter-protesters. Most of those who spoke were hurt that day, and they described their injuries.
Defense attorneys focused many of their questions on what happened that morning, while prosecutors homed in on the afternoon and the overall atmosphere.
One of those witnesses was Marcus Martin, whose leg was broken as he pushed his now-wife out of the way of the car.
Tearful and visibly pained, he described the attack and how he was forced to wear a boot for eight months.
When asked by Antony to describe Heyer as a person, Martin became too distraught to find the words for his friend.
Lisa Q, a counter-protester who did not provide her last name out of fear, said the whole day was pretty noisy, but when the car drove through the crowd, the screams were different.
“It was a terror,” she said.
She was thrown onto another car. She said she didn’t see anything or know what was happening.
“I felt like I was in a tornado,” she said.
Brian Henderson, another victim, said a lot of people had gathered earlier in the morning at what is now named Market Street Park. When he got there at about 10 a.m., the height of the clashes, he said he couldn’t tell who was in the park or outside of it.
When asked about items being thrown, such as water bottles, Henderson said, “there was a lot of that.”
He also saw someone throwing a rock at a purple van of ralliers near Water Street Parking Garage. But that vehicle ended up leaving and counter-protesters celebrated the fact that they had left, he said.
Henderson became visibly upset when shown a photo of him being struck by the vehicle.
“I just wasn’t fast enough,” he said. “Forgive me, it’s just hard to look at.”
Aubtin Heydari said his memory of the attack was hazy due to a head injury. Among the few things he remembers was trying to walk, though he couldn’t because of a broken leg.
Michael Webster, the first witness called, said he and his girlfriend were going to eat lunch on the Downtown Mall. As they walked up Fourth Street toward the mall, Webster said, he saw Fields’ vehicle idling in a stretch of the mall for pedestrians near Water Street, well behind the vehicles that had stopped to let a large crowd of counter-protesters pass.
The area behind the car was clear, Webster said, and it appeared that it would have been easy for him to turn around. Webster said he saw the car back up as if it were leaving the area.
Not long after he crossed Water Street and headed onto the Downtown Mall, past the counter-protesters, Webster said, he heard the vehicle rev its engine and accelerate toward the crowd.
“Because of the world we live in, I thought, ‘Oh God, he’s driving into the crowd,’” Webster said.
When questioned by the defense, Webster said he only saw damage to the front of the vehicle.
Brennan Gilmore, an activist and former Foreign Service officer, filmed the attack. He also is suing InfoWars and other right-wing outfits who he claims defamed him by using his footage to concoct a false conspiracy that he was involved in the attack.
Antony played Gilmore’s footage for the jury.
“I heard a sickening sound and saw bodies flying everywhere,” he said.
Fields’ attorney, Denise Lunsford, a former commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County, asked Gilmore about what happened before the car attack and the morning rally and if he saw any altercations.
“The physical altercations I saw were in the street, and I don’t know who they were between,” he said.
Gilmore later said the afternoon of Aug. 12 was much calmer than the morning, which he described as “chaotic.”
He was the only witness not to be dismissed Thursday; Judge Richard E. Moore indicated he would likely be called to the stand again next week.
The last witness of the day, Stephen Simalchik, said he attended the rally as an observer and was sporadically filming.
This year, on the anniversary of Heyer’s death, he went through the footage he took one last time, intending to delete it. However, he realized his video showed Fields in a white polo among other white supremacists.
The video was played in court and showed the group chanting, “You will not replace us,” which gradually morphed into “Jews will not replace us.”
More witnesses will give testimony on Friday when Fields’ trial resumes at 9 a.m. in Charlottesville Circuit Court.