CHARLOTTESVILLE — James Alex Fields Jr. vacillated between remorse and contempt in the months after driving his car into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last year.
He apologized to the first officer who caught up with him on Aug. 12, 2017, after he sped from the scene and, according to body camera footage played in court Tuesday, said: “I didn’t want to hurt people. I thought they were attacking me.”
He hyperventilated for nearly two minutes during an interrogation after investigators told him he had killed one person and hurt numerous others. But in a jailhouse phone call to his mother earlier this year, Fields called the people he injured “terrorists” and “communists.”
He showed no sympathy for Heather Heyer, the Charlottesville resident who was killed, as he and his mother talked last December about how Heyer’s own mother, Susan Bro, was coping with the tragedy.
“She’s one of those anti-white communists,” Fields said of Bro. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not up for questioning. She’s the enemy.”
Fields, 21, of Maumee, Ohio, is charged with first-degree murder and other crimes for killing Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, and injuring dozens of others in the wake of the Unite the Right rally.
The defense began presenting its case Tuesday afternoon, calling on various police officers who witnessed Fields’ arrest. They said he appeared to show remorse and was cooperative.
Prosecutors say Fields drove into the crowd of counterprotesters out of anger because of the violence earlier in the day. The white nationalists Fields supported — who were marching in part to protest the removal of Confederate statues — clashed violently with counterprotesters until police declared the event an unlawful assembly and forced the crowds to leave.
Fields’ attorneys say their client, who had driven from Ohio to attend the rally, shouldn’t be convicted because he feared for his life at the time of the crash and was acting in self-defense.
Jurors learned Tuesday that Fields sent his mother a picture of Adolf Hitler and a text message prior to the rally, after she pleaded with him to be careful.
“We’re not the one [sic] who need to be careful,” he wrote.
Prosecutors argue that the text shows Fields planned to engage in violence before he ever arrived in Charlottesville.
Defense attorneys attempted to suppress the message Fields sent to his mother, arguing that it would be unfair to Fields and have limited value in determining his intent. But Judge Richard E. Moore said it could help the jury understand what motivated Fields to drive his car into the crowd.
Brant Meyer, an FBI analyst who helped investigators by collecting data from Fields’ social media accounts, testified Tuesday about another image that prosecutors say reflected Fields’ mindset.
The online image, posted publicly to Instagram, shows a car slamming into a group of people with overlaid text that says: “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work.”
Four days earlier, Fields sent a variation of the meme to a friend in an Instagram private message and wrote: “When I see protesters blocking.”
Fields sent those images about three months before his own car plowed into the Charlottesville protesters.
After the prosecution wrapped up its case after four days of witness testimony, Moore dismissed a defense motion to throw out the first-degree murder charge and eight counts of malicious wounding against Fields.
“I’m not sure what else his intent could have been by driving [into the crowd] at that speed,” Moore said while the jury was out of the courtroom.
Moore said evidence presented over the last week and testimony about how Fields idled his vehicle after backing the car away from the crowd, when he could have left the scene unimpeded, could be enough to determine his guilt.
“His explanation that he felt threatened is contrary to the evidence of the case,” Moore said.
Moore told the jury that the defense plans to call more witnesses Wednesday and Thursday. Closing arguments and jury deliberation, he said, could begin Thursday afternoon.
Fields also faces federal hate crime charges, for which he will be tried after the state trial has concluded. In the federal case, he could receive the death penalty if convicted.